Solving the Right Problem

by Jason Spingarn-Koff

Assignment 1 for the Knight-Mozzilla Learning Lab

I’ve been thinking a lot about this bit of wisdom from Aza Raskin’s lecture: Most of design is finding the right problem to solve.  He recounted the story of Paul MacCready, who won a longstanding airplane engineering competition by reframing the design problem: he shifted his focus from building a complex machine to building one that could be repaired quickly.  As Aza later summarized, “It’s not about thinking outside the box, but finding the right box to think inside.”

This resonates strongly for me and my project, CrowdCam — a crowd-sourced mobile platform to provide live video news feeds from virtually anywhere, at any time.  In recent months, I’ve begun building basic interactive GUI mock-ups of the full system (an iPhone app and Website).  I’ve labored intensely over every screen, menu, and icon.  Adding hotlinks, I’ve simulated the interaction flow.  Though rough, it’s pretty exciting, and I can’t wait to work with engineers on building the full prototype.

mock-up screen for CrowdCam app

At the same time, I’ve been seeking feedback from media executives, cyberlaw scholars, civic media mavens, and technology entrepreneurs.  The recent MIT Knight Civic Media Conference was especially helpful.  People generally love the idea.  There seems to be a real need and niche for a system such as CrowdCam.  Yet I’ve also been hearing a consistent line of questioning that isn’t so easy to answer.  How large a network of registered “Cams” (people with video-enabled cellphone cameras) do I need? And how will I sign up all these people?  Will people in remote areas, even war zones, have the right technology?  If so, what would prompt them to download the app and register?

These questions underline a troubling possibility: What if I build the most beautiful, elegant system — yet not enough people use it?  Without scale, the platform will be useless.  It’s one thing to build a technology; it’s quite another thing to build a community of users.

So now I’m wondering if my principal design problem is not: “build the best platform for mobile live streaming and 2-way communication to newsrooms” (even though that is of course a key component).  Like Paul McReady, I may need to shift focus from building a complex machine to solving an underlying process.  The new problem statement might be: “how to find people anywhere in the world, fast.”  Can I use existing technologies?  Piggyback onto existing communities?

Looking over Aza’s slide of his top 7 design tips, #5 seems right on: “You will change the problem you are trying to solve.”  Though as I click through my proud mock-ups, I’m not quite ready to embrace #7: “Plan to throw it away.”