Understanding the Problem

You Can't Really Fix It If You Don't Understand It

This summer was brutal on lawns in our neighborhood. And in our state.

We’ve been suffering through the worst drought in decades. And it will probably keep getting worse for the foreseeable future because we can’t seem to collectively get our act together to fix things. And I’m not just talking climate. I’m talking about everything from how we produce to how we consume to how we interact with ourselves and our environment.

But that’s for another post and another soapbox. This post is about our lawns. Because the drought brought on (justifiable) watering restrictions. We could only water twice a week and for a limited amount of time. So many lawns turned brown.

Many homeowners thought that their dying grass was simply from the heat and the lack of water. Part of that was true. But another cause was sod worms. They were quietly feasting on the grass. And while healthy grass could probably recover more easily, stressed grass suffered. So before many people realized it, large chunks of their lawns were dying. Not drying out, but being eaten from the roots. And no amount of water was going to bring it back.

We ran into this a few years ago with our lawn, and had been treating it, so we were fortunately spared. But many of our neighbors weren’t. They didn’t realize it. And our working hypothesis is that because of the lower water levels, it spread more of the larvae through the irrigation systems.

My dad, who has always kept an immaculate lawn, faced this challenge. He thought he had a spot that was having trouble because of the heat. None of us even realized it might be sod worms until we saw some of the first moths popping up. But by then it was very late. So he has to re-seed a big spot of his lawn.

Understanding the Problem

If we don’t understand the problem, we can’t hope to find the right solution. With our lawns, the real problem wasn’t the heat or the lack of water. I was able to keep a thriving lawn with less water than I’ve ever used and in the same heat as everyone.

So anyone who thought it was simply heat or drought missed the real problem. The biggest problem was the sod worm hidden from view, eating the roots and killing the grass. It looked very much like drought-stricken grass, but it wasn’t. So the solution of adding more water would do nothing.

To really treat a lawn, fix it, and bring it back to health, the homeowner had to take care of the bugs eating the roots. And then start to add seed and water and other solutions. But getting to the heart of the issue first is critical.

Share Product Thinking

Our Users

Much like our lawns, we have to understand the true nature of our users’ problems in order to create suitable solutions.

I’ve talked in the past about doing this. Let me give a couple of examples.

On a team I worked with, we had the request for an export button as feature. A user wanted to be able to export data from our application to excel.

That probably seems pretty straightforward. And frankly, we get that request all the time on almost every product team and within most features and applications. Users want to export data. And that’s understandable and good.

But we didn’t stop with accepting that. We dug into the reasons why. Why did they need an export button? What were they doing with the data? What were they trying to achieve with the information?

After exploring these questions, we understood much better what our user was trying to achieve. It wasn’t about an export button, but was ultimately about getting the data from our system into another system they used. They also pulled in data from other applications they used and cross-referenced all the information. So they were looking for an integration, or ultimately for insights across platforms. An export is a good start, but if we didn’t dig deeper, we would have missed valuable insights that helped us create a better product and experience for that user and other users and we understood how they were using our product and other products in their businesses.

That is often the case with data and information. Everyone wants data, but they are ultimately looking for insights to drive better decisions and better outcomes for their teams and their business.

So how can you help them achieve that?

In another scenario, we had a set of users who wanted different dashboards. I love dashboards. I think they are great. But often we use them when we don’t know what we’re trying to uncover. We hope that having lots of data will show something to us. Sometimes it might, and sometimes it may just create lots of noise.

So we dove into the underlying questions that our users were hoping to answer. What did they hope to get out of additional dashboards in our product? What would be the most relevant information? What would they do with that information? What actions could they take in their business if they knew XYZ thing?

Once we got to the heart of the problems they were trying to solve, it wasn’t always a dashboard that made the most sense. Sometimes it was better monitoring and alerts when something went wrong (both on our side and theirs). Sometimes it was setting up some of the tools we already had in place. And sometimes it was something entirely different based on the actual question or outcome they were trying to drive.

But it all started with understanding the genuine problem. Without that, we would have had no way to create a meaningful solution for our users.


Like the sod worms destroying lawns, often the actual problems of our users are hidden beneath the surface, even for them. We have to ask questions, probe, and get to the core before we can create solutions. If we try to add water without addressing the real problem, we may create temporary fixes, but they won’t be long-term solutions. And we’ll end up spinning our wheels again and again.

So rather than stopping with the superficial, get to the heart of the problems with your users and your customers. Understand why they have a problem, what they are trying to accomplish, and what outcomes they are trying to create. Then you can do something far more meaningful than an export button.