A college friend and I, both interested in product design, recently challenged each other to begin keeping a "bug list". This is an idea we'd read about in a book by some of the founders of Ideo, the famous product design firm. A bug list is where you keep a list of all the problems you encounter or run into on a daily basis. The problems that seem the most promising become fodder for later product ideas. All good products start with a problem they're trying to solve. The bigger the problem (I've heard it described as solving shark bites versus mosquito bites) and the more people who have that problem, the more impactful the product will be.
More fundamentally, the bug list is a tool to get ourselves in the habit of looking for problems to solve. Everytime we complain, get frustrated, lose something, etc. during the day we make a note of what the problem was. Or I would sit down at the beginning of the day and think of ten or more problems I had as I mentally ran through my routine or through the previous day's activities.
The nature of our challenge was to each come up with ten new problems a day for two weeks. Then we would have a call to compare and figure out the best problems we would like to solve. That's close to 300 problems we came up with between the two of us over those two weeks. Most of the ideas were shit, of course- things that couldn't really be solved with products or even software, or that were more personal problems or societal problems. Or problems that would require a multi-million dollar research team to solve, rather than two young engineers working in their spare time. Many of the problems were small problems, too- problems few other people likely saw as an issue, or that were mosquito bites that wouldn't be worth the hassle of using a product to solve. Still, we developed a short list of things we'd like to try and solve at some point.
Even if none of these ideas go anywhere, coming up with them has been a powerful process for me. I see three distinct advantages.
A few examples are in order. After washing clothes in the shower at the gym, they often wouldn't dry completely in my truck, and I was always tossing them around and juggling them as I never really had a good place to put them. Once I realized this was quite a bother, all I did was find a bungee cord and strap it from the headrest on the passenger seat to the "oh shit" bar in the back seat behind the driver. Instant clothes line. The clothes dried better and I never had to find a place to put the wet clothes again. When I wasn't using the bungee cord, all I had to do is unhook one end of the bungee cord.
Another was that my phone, which is old enough that the battery dies in a couple hours, was always running out of battery overnight (when I needed the alarm) or whilst using it to navigate. I have an external battery but I needed to remember to charge it, which happened infrequently. Again, once I realized this, the easy solution was to buy a car charger for the phone. Simple, but I first had to be aware of how annoying this problem really was for me.
This one is really silly. For some reason, I forgot to bring a pillow with me in the truck for sleeping. Needing something to use, one of my packs became my improvised pillow. Better than nothing, but not fantastic. In a testament to how quickly we adapt to sub-par situations and stop thinking about how to change them, I went months like this without a pillow... despite returning to my Mom's house every week or two for a couple of days, where I could easily have grabbed a spare pillow to use. But I'd lost my awareness of it as a problem. I'm happy to report that I do now have a very comfortable pillow to use.
Another one I just thought of is how I always second guess whether or not I locked the truck. As you can imagine, this causes a lot of unneccessary angst. As far as I can tell, I do always lock it, but I still second guess myself once I've arrived at my destination on foot. And it's important for me to know as I usually have my laptop in there, which is the one thing I can't lose. Otherwise, what would I be writing this on? I need it for work, including the work that actually makes me money.
The typical engineering solution would be to create some sort of electronic doohickey that automatically locks the truck when the key gets a certain distance away. New cars may already have a feature like this. But for me, I can think of an easy, system-based low tech solution. I always clip my truck keys to a belt loop with a carabiner. Perhaps the easiest solution would be to not clip my keys there until I've locked the truck with them. That way, I know that as long as the keys are clipped there, I've locked the truck.
Note- since originally writing this perhaps a month ago, I've adopted this system and it works wonderfully. The truck always gets locked, and I get peace of mind- again, it started with awareness, and vocalizing the problem. When something is named, it can be overcome.
I love this mindset shift because, simple as these examples may seem, it really requires that I think of myself as a problem solver, which is the second advantage I mentioned. It is empowering for several reasons. Rather than just complaining or being grouchy about my thousand niggling problems, I can use my awareness to come up with my own solutions. Each problem I solve is more mental energy freed up for what I actually want to spend my days doing and thinking about. This whole process then creates a greater meta-habit of reflecting and acting purposefully, what the Greeks called Praxis, instead of constantly reacting automatically and mindlessly to the myriad distractions life throws at each of us. This presence of mind coupled with a bias for action is powerful in any aspect of life, and I can see how the habit has trickled over. Problem solving in this way also gives me the sense of being more than a pure consumer of prefab solutions. Rather, I am creating some of my own. I don't want this article to be a critique of consumerism. I do think we can all use more creativity and creation in our lives, more of a balance.
On to the last advantage I mentioned: Problem finding. While it seems basic, it is actually quite profound. Any great endeavor, feat, or creation begins with a good question to answer, as problems only emerge when we ask the right questions. And finding our own problems is crucial to being an independent, mature human being capable of thinking for themselves. Life is a constant progression of overcoming obstacles to achieve certain ends, and growing in the process. If we are not deciding on the problems to solve in our lives, then someone or something else is. That means that that something else is deciding for us not only what our objectives are but also what our growth is. When we give away our problem-finding power, we consent to having our behavior and growth narrowly circumscribed.
Finding good questions is hard. It seems to be a natural characteristic of children, until it is programmed out of us by unsupportive parents or a stifling school atmosphere where, eventually, curiosity is squelched out as a distraction to "the curriculum" (never mind who gets to decide what that curriculum is that every child should be learning irrespective of interest, usefulness, and learning style). Instead of our natural curiosity and question-making being rewarded and cultivated, it is suppressed. Without this natural curiosity, a problem-seeking tendency is nigh impossible. Finding people who can answer a question or solve a problem is easy by comparison. We get plenty of experience in this throughout school- but those problems are decided upon for us, and typically are completely disconnected from any meaning and relevance to our lives. Small "self-directed" projects are typically narrowly circumscribed in their possibilities and done only to pay lip service to the idea of self-direction. Grace Llewellyn points out in her wonderful Teenage Liberation Handbook that the fad of "experiential education" (a fancy word coined by educators to explain the way people have been learning for all of human history) is a double-edged sword. If it is such an effective way of learning, then what is the experience of school teaching kids? To submit, be passive, not think for themselves, not to question or problem find. In short, to be unfree. Questioning, problem-finding, and solving one's own problems are fundamental freedom activities, and are at the root of a liberal (literally, "freeing") education, a concept we have lost touch with- even in so called Liberal Arts colleges.
The problem is that many of the solutions human provide today will soon be done by computers and machines, if they're not already. An education that trains us to create rote solutions is not only enslaving our minds, it is handicapping our abilities to thrive in the future. Problem-finding, on the other hand, is something that computers will not be able to do for us for a long, long time. And I don't know if we want them to, because at its core problem-finding is requires making value decisions about what is important to us and what kind of life we want to live. These are questions we can only answer for ourselves and as a voice within our communities. We do not want to outsource that discussion, as we then lose sight of what a good solution looks like. Indeed, Jerome Bruner, in The Relevance of Education, points to three things that machines will never be able to do for us- at least not anytime soon- and that will be at the heart of the value we create for one another in an increasingly networked, automated world.
Keeping a bug list to find problems may seem like a small step towards achieving this. But it is a step, and in the right direction.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much