Solving the Wrong Problems

Because I try to build things, and also because there are very smart people online, I occasionally get tagged on very interesting topics on social media.

Happened a few days ago when someone asked what if we had an app that notified people where and when fuel is available. Zimbabweans spend a lot of time queuing for petrol, hundreds of thousands of hours lost in productivity. An app would help everyone, and additionally make the process more efficient.

It’s a brilliant idea that I suddenly saw great potential for. And a number of suggestions  immediately sprang to mind, like an automated ticketing machine that a motorist can collect at the filling station with their number in the queue.

But something didn’t feel right. Fuel should always be availabe. That’s what normal countries are like.

And then I remembered Dan Norman’s advice in his  brilliant “The Design of everyday Things” (prior thoughts on this blog) (wikipedia). Engineers solve problems, he said, but designers look for problems. Good designers start by trying to understand the problem before attempting to solve it.

“A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all:
solve the correct problem.“, he writes.

This problem is wrong.  It is certainly interesting, and may lead to  brilliant solutions but it is not the right kind of problem.

I think in Africa we spend way too much time solving the wrong problems.

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