Hibai Unzueta

March 25, 2021

Design is about helping struggling humans

When you talk to people they often use the language of solutions. «I need a larger house» — but, do they?

We talk about solutions because it's easier. They are tangible, and we're very inclined to believe that only if we had that thing our problems would fade away. Like a shortcut. Wishful thinking.

It's not that easy.

You got that larger house. And there are chances that you are still unhappy. Maybe that's not what you actually needed! You could argue there's an opacity at that level, a mist that hides what the actual struggle is.

It's useful to ask when: «When did you first feel you needed a larger house?» That helps people really bring in the memories of being stuck. Who were they with? What were they doing? «Guests were coming over for dinner and there was toys, clothes, boxes all over the place! You know, our closet is so uncomfortable to use» Aha! 

Only when we know what the struggle is we have a way to tell if a certain solution would help a human—including ourselves—make progress. If the struggle is «my house is never ready for friends to come over», maybe a new house helps, or a better closet, or getting rid of stuff, or... you name it.
Screenshot 2021-03-25 at 11.12.37.png

You are at the outside walls of a labyrinth. In front of a door that reads «a larger house».

Only if you're able to make the mist fade away by discovering the actual struggle, other apparently valid solutions that also may solve that struggle will appear. And now you will have gained the ability to choose. But choose, based on what?

Let's look inside now.

Out of these seemingly appealing solutions, some are more straightforward, some more convoluted and risky. The trick here is betting on one that allows you to fix the problem before your energy fades away. There's opacity at this level also, because we cannot fully see which paths are the more promising.


We'll never be 100% certain, but that doesn't mean we can't make these opacities smaller before setting off. How you do it is a whole other topic, but it's basically the trick of thinking about what's like walking that path without walking it actually (cardboard, prototypes, spikes, diagrams, dependencies, fat markers, even intuition all belong here).

Even when we realise that we cannot make these opacities smaller we can still bet on a choice that seems to have the path clearer. Here, maybe «a larger house» is not the most straightforward solution for the real struggle after all.

This is what design is about. Spotting opacities and making them smaller until the choices are clear.

  1. What's the real struggle? What are solutions that could help with it?
  2. What is the safest solution that does the work?

Also, take this into account:
  • This heavily draws from the Jobs To Be Done framework by Bob Moesta and Clayton Christensen.
  • Step 1, what the real struggle is, is more nuanced: It's the intersection of a real problem with what you want/know to work on. Having clear what kind of struggles you're interested in solving (or what struggles direct people towards the solutions you're offering) gives extra specificity to this first filter.
  • Step 2 can also be described as shaping (Ryan Singer), giving form to a thing without fully building it.
  • Intuition is a multi-step process. If we're struggling with removing the opacities of the solutions of a certain problem, we can always choose to put it aside and instead choose a well-bounded problem-solution pair that will add extra knowledge. Maybe next time we try our intuition becomes more useful.