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May 23, 2017

Role of Empathetic Problem Finding in the Digital Age

Posted by Rajesh K. Murthy (View Profile | View All Posts) at 2:49 PM

Role of Empathetic Problem Finding in the Digital Age

When I read about all the fantastic innovations being developed across the world, I sometimes wonder if someday we will run out of relevant problems to solve. However, what if we shift our perspective a bit and instead start looking for more relevant, deeper problems to solve - rather than creating solutions to apparent problems? If we consider the scale of digitization and disintermediation today, this is likely to play an important role in our brave new world. For instance, millions of jobs in industries like retail, banking, financial services, logistics, transportation and public services will be automated over the next decade. Should our concern be to locate other industries that will require this surplus manpower, or should we consider how to redefine our concept of 'remunerable work'?

Uber is known the world over as a taxi-hailing app. And while offering us great service, the company also reshaped the logistics industry as they found a larger requirement it could help address. This led them to launch services using which parents could book a ride to have their children picked up and dropped to a destination. Or, shoppers could have their groceries dropped to their homes. Uber has tied up with mega event organizers in cities to simplify travel for attendees, and more recently, it has ventured into the food delivery industry. Uber discovered problem finding as a means to expand its services.

Design Thinking as a technique of problem finding

One method that can effectively help organizations and individuals prise out core problems worth solving is Design Thinking. At Infosys we have been leveraging this technique of creative problem finding and solving for a couple of years now. We have trained over 1, 35,000 employees in it. So what are the aspects of Design Thinking that facilitate problem finding?

Design Thinking has five steps: empathy for the person facing the problem, defining the problem, ideating on possible solutions, prototyping the solutions, and finally testing to determine the best solution. The first two steps are critical and can help to locate real problems worth solving. At this stage, we need to ask questions unconstrained by any exiting notions. The third step is a natural progression of the first two. Prototyping should be low-cost and designed to 'fail fast' so that the best solution wins faster than later, and can be tested sooner.

A Design Thinking workshop facilitates group interaction, and should ideally challenge the 'business as usual' perspective and break associated assumptions.

Identifying problems that allow for expanding business models

The most common, tried-and-tested method of launching a business is to identify a small problem and solve it. For example, someone at some point asked the question, "How can I get food to my home when I am too busy, or want to take it easy, or because I suddenly have guests over?" And food delivery as-a-service was born. Taking the same example, if you were led by Design Thinking, you would have synthesized all the information you have on food. Your definition of the problem would more likely have been, "How can I ensure that food is accessible to any household in a particular region, especially during emergency situations." In today's digital age, viable business models are those that have the potential to grow the problem statement and offer an expanding solution, as in the case of Uber.

Understanding your audience

Finding the right problem is backed by extensive research and a deep understanding of one's audience - who they are and what they need. For instance, when a low-cost incubator (a simple and scientifically designed sleeping bag like warmer) widely used in developing countries was being designed, the product had a temperature indicator to display 37 degrees Celsius - the point to which the waxy substance in the wrap needed to be heated. After a while, it was found that the incubator was not delivering the expected results. This led the innovators back to the field for investigation. They found that many of the users were not heating the warming substance to the stipulated 37 degrees Celsius because the users felt this temperature may be too hot for the newborns. So the designers replaced the temperature indicator with a color indicator[2]. Users now know that when the color is green, they have heated the warming substance adequately. This tiny change alone has probably saved thousands of infant lives. Similar instances of effective problem finding are aplenty.

As technology begins playing a bigger role in our lives, I foresee a new age of problem finding which offers exciting possibilities. I see us as being able to take on large, complex problems and concerns that once seemed daunting. I see us pushing the frontiers of our imagination and creativity in finding some of the biggest problems, and subsequently their solutions.

I feel fortunate to be part of a technology company that has already taken initiatives to effect an organizational change in this direction of problem finding, involving not only our employees but our clients and other stakeholders. Discussions, debates, and experiences in our thought leadership summit, Infosys Confluence, will dwell on the bigger concerns of our times, among other related topics. These are amazing times when competitors are also collaborators, organizational and industrial boundaries are becoming fluid, and the future is being built with bits and atoms. Infosys Confluence, which starts today, will be in many ways a microcosm of these times, and I am looking forward to all the excitement and the learning.

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