50 Problems In 50 Days: The Power Of Not Knowing

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I’ve travelled 2517 miles to try to solve 50 problems in 50 days1 using design, a journey that challenged me to fundamentally rethink my understanding of the user-experience design process.

I set myself a challenge. I wanted to test the limits of design’s ability to solve problems — big and small. To do this, I left the comfort of my computer chair and set out into the unknown. Every day, I had 24 hours to observe a problem, attempt to solve it and then communicate the solution.

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For more of an introduction to the adventure, “50 Problems in 50 Days, Part 1: Real Empathy for Innovation3” gives an overview of the project, as well as argues for the importance of real empathy in developing truly problem-solving solutions. For more, take a look at the 50 Problems in 50 Days4 website.

In this second of three articles, I’ll share what travelling 2517 miles taught me about not knowing and about the value of incompetence in fostering innovation — in other words, how I learned that being an idiot is OK for me, and is OK for you, too.

Day 42: Homelessness

It was 7:00 am, and the sun was already shining in beautiful Turin. Leaving my hostel early, I set out to find my problem to tackle that day. I found myself walking with commuters, immersing myself in my surroundings and observing.

As I walked one of the city’s many high streets, I passed shops that were not yet open. Looking around me, I gradually became aware of shapes by the side of the road. Looking closer, I realized there were people asleep in the doorways of the stores.

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I was familiar with homelessness, having researched the problem in a past project and having witnessed it in several cities during my adventure. However, I was more conscience of it here in Turin.

I stopped walking and thought.

Assessing what I was seeing — and perhaps in a moment of foolishness — I decided to make homelessness in Turin my problem for the day. My question became, How can design address the problem of homelessness in Turin?

I knew that trying to tackle homelessness in 24 hours was a ridiculous undertaking. However, with my knowledge and research, I had some experience to direct my thinking.

I got to work.

I began by interviewing passersby about what they knew of the problem in the city and about the social and political factors that might have led to people living on the street.

I observed people interact with the homeless.

I analyzed. I created mind maps documenting what I knew of the interdependent factors relating to homelessness, analyzing perceptions and comparing them to the realities.

I worked. And I worked. And I worked.

And I came up with absolutely nothing.

My effort resulted in pages of notes, yet I struggled to come up with any tangible ideas. The ideas that came to me seemed inadequate to the complexities that I knew of the problem.

I was getting nowhere.

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Exhausted, I sat down at the edge of a busy public plaza.

As I did, my eyes adjusted to the surroundings. In the corner of the plaza sat a middle-aged woman. She was dressed in black and was looking down at her feet. I soon realized that she was begging.

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Observing her interact with passersby, I realized something important: that I knew nothing about her.

Until that point, my work had been directed largely by my past experience with this problem, rather than by what I was seeing right in front of me. In a moment of foolishness, I decided to scrap all of my day’s work so far and start again.

Standing up, I left the plaza and went back to observation, research and analysis. This time, I approached the situation afresh. As I spoke with people, I tried to re-understand the problem as if I had never dealt with it. In doing so, I based my questions not on what I thought I knew, but on a search for new insight.

I turned a corner, and suddenly there was a flash in front of me.

An elderly lady was coming right towards me! Before I knew it, she was clutching at my shirt sleeves, speaking to me in fast pigeon-English, asking for money!

My mind raced.

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A simple interaction took me completely by surprise. (Image: Bogan Suditu9)

Questions started popping into my head, great questions that built on my previous research, questions that recognized the complexity of the problem! But stopping myself from focusing on what I thought I knew, I decided to ask her one simple, naive question:

What do you need my money for?

As she answered, something unanticipated happened. She told me why she needed any change I could spare, and as she did so, I forgot all of my questions and listened to what she was saying. In that moment, I suddenly understood the problem.

As she spoke, I found myself faced with a very human dilemma.

On the one hand, I wanted to give and to be compassionate. On the other hand, I didn’t know how my money would be spent and was concerned that it might be used irresponsibly. In the end, I didn’t give.

This one simple insight sparked a multitude of ideas in my mind and led to my eventual solution.

Where my foreknowledge and experience had taken me in circles, being prepared to forget what I knew and approach the problem naively yielded insight as clear as day. I was able to tackle this problem not because of my competence in it, but because I was prepared to be incompetent.

Not Knowing

Trying to solve 50 problems in 50 days demonstrated to me the value of incompetence in solving problems and the danger that competence sometimes presents.

From checkout processes to apps, we build up proficiencies in how to solve certain types of problems during our careers as designers. This, coupled with repeated exposure, enables us to develop a measure of expertise in our field.

Every designer should strive for expertise. However, my adventure taught me that sometimes this expertise can make us neglect a vital tool in truly solving problems: It can make us forget “not knowing.”

Our accumulated expertise enables us to quickly establish how to tackle a particular challenge, the factors related to the problem and the limitations of our reach. While this experience is vital, familiarity with a problem can also restrict us to routine ways of thinking and can prevent us from seeing beyond what we know and discovering what we don’t.

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As designers, the quality of our solutions will always be fundamentally linked to our understanding of the problem. Learning to approach both new and familiar problems naively enables us to do something important. It enables us to look beyond what we think we know and to fully immerse ourselves in the problem we are trying to solve.

Innovation In Incompetence

From asking “Why is a used toilet roll on the floor?” in Berlin (day 32) to questioning why people keep getting hit by bikes in Amsterdam (day 28), I unearthed unanticipated insights from otherwise ordinary situations by approaching problems naively. This did not negate my knowledge; rather, it enabled me to spot assumptions and limitations in my thinking. In doing so, I was able to discern more accurate insights and to foster more effective solutions.

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Documenting the people-weaving techniques of cyclists in Amsterdam on day 28

Being prepared to “not know” is difficult. Everything we think to be true in life is based on what experience has taught us. Therefore, being prepared to approach a familiar design challenge naively is difficult. In short, it can make us feel a little stupid and challenge our desire for expertise.

Ultimately, though, trying to solve 50 problems in 50 days taught me that real design expertise isn’t always about knowing the right answers, but in knowing when and how to ask the right questions.

From responsive design conventions to e-commerce store layouts, when we are prepared to re-evaluate what we know and to approach familiar problems afresh, we give ourselves vital opportunities to better understand and better solve those problems.

Methods For Anyone And Everyone

Below are just some of the methods I developed in my journey. Use them, build on them, and develop your own. Our aim should be to find methods to more deeply understand the problems we are trying to solve and, in doing so, to better serve the people we are designing for.

Choose to Not Know

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Creating an interactive communication tool for hostel staff on day 29

When we’re briefed on a design problem, more often that not our brains start to do something amazing: They start to solve. We find points of reference to frame the challenge by recalling experiences that might help.

Suppose we’re given a brief to “design a website to help festival-goers find music venues.” Upon hearing this brief, we’d have two choices. Choosing to momentarily put our experience to one side and “not know” what this solution might look like accomplishes two things:

  1. It compels us to dig deeper.
    Starting with no answers compels us to dig deeper to find the best solution, rather than be drawn to the obvious half solutions that might meet the need. Being prepared to approach a new problem naively forces us to immerse ourselves in the world of the people we are designing for. Rather than let our experience direct our thinking, by saying “I don’t know,” we make ourselves really pay attention to the people who do.
  2. It fosters creativity.
    Not retreating to past experience opens our mind to consider solutions beyond what we know. These solutions could be better, more inventive and more intuitive — we just have to be prepared to look for them.

Ask Stupid Brilliant Questions

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Designing a simple tool to locate and navigate to free Wi-Fi on day 35

In my journey, I learned that one of the best methods for unearthing valuable insight from familiar design challenges is to ask (seemingly) stupid questions.

Suppose we’re asked to create a website to help someone sell their home. Our experience could give us useful shortcuts to skip the basics in order to deal with more unknown aspects of the project. However, rather than asking “What content should go on this website and how shall we structure it?”, asking a naïve question like “Why do people sell their home?” or even “Why do you need a website to achieve what you want?” could unlock insights that shape the entire direction of the project.

Likewise, asking naïve questions of the people we’re designing for gives us an opportunity to listen and to challenge our assumptions about the problems they face. Rather than asking end users “What specific resources would you like to help you sell your home?” making a naïve statement like “I’ve never sold a house before. What’s it like?” helps to dig below the surface to root out the underlying problem.

Question Convention

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Creating an interactive and non-invasive tool for crowdsourcing book notes on day 47

Designed conventions are vital. By including conventions in our products, we are giving users a shorthand to more easily understand and use the solutions we have created for them. However, while the conventions we use are often an excellent shorthand, they are not necessarily the best way to solve the problems we’re tasked with.

Experience teaches us that certain problems can be solved with conventional solutions. It is easy to assume that a wayfinding problem is best solved with a map. While conventions enable us to solve quickly, innovation is born of a natural distrust of convention and a desire to create smarter, more intuitive experiences. Suppose we’re asked to create a music discovery service. In digital applications, music is conventionally represented as images of album artwork or as rows in tables. Following suit and having users browse music in this way would be easy. But our aim should be to create a solution that better meets the needs of the people we are designing for. In almost every other situation, discovering music is rarely a visual experience — it’s auditory. How would this affect the decisions we make when designing this service?

For a great (and really simple) example of this in practice, look at Christian Holst’s article on “Redesigning the Country Selector15.” Regardless of whether you agree with his solution, challenging convention enables us to create smarter, more effective outcomes.

These are just some of the methods by which we can embrace naivety and challenge what we think we know in order to better solve for the people we are designing for.

It would be ridiculous to overlook the role of convention and the role of experience in creating intuitive, useable products. But by being prepared to challenge what we know, we set ourselves up to discover what we don’t.

The Solution

So, what was the result of overlooking my experience, re-evaluating what I thought I knew and re-approaching the problem with the mindset of a beginner?

Sitting down outside a metro station in the centre of Turin, I reconsidered my dilemma of being asked to spare some money.

On the one hand, I wanted to give and be compassionate. On the other hand, I didn’t know whether my money would be used responsibility. In the end, I didn’t give.

As I sat outside the station, I looked up to see commuters ascending the stairs from the underground platform. Reaching the top of the stairs, they would throw away their travel ticket and continue their journey.

Watching this simple action was my eureka moment.

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The solution I created would repurpose Turin’s metro system. When buying a ticket, the buyer would be invited to donate a tiny amount (as little as €0.20).

Then, when leaving the station, instead of throwing their ticket away, they would be able to leave it in the hat of someone living on the street, a donation that could be converted to a night’s stay at one of Turin’s shelters.

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With this solution, people could be compassionate while knowing exactly how their donation will be used.

Since publishing 50 Problems in 50 Days, this solution has been one of the most shared and most discussed. Being contacted by organizations and individuals around the world to discuss how to implement comparable solutions in their cities has been amazing.

Conclusion

Being prepared to re-approach design challenges naively is vital to innovation. From shopping carts to apps, our accumulated experience helps us to confidently solve based on what we think to be true. However, it can also negate one of our greatest assets as designers: humble incompetence.

Even in the most familiar of situations, when we are prepared to “not know” our client’s business (say, the format of a website or the mindset of the user), we are able to expose our assumptions and seek new insight. In doing so, we empower ourselves to better understand the problem and to foster a more effective solution.

Ultimately, we must dig deeper into the problems we are tasked with solving and aim to better solve for the people whose lives we are affecting every day.

In the words of Irene Pereyra20, Global Director of UX and Strategy at Fantasy Interactive21:

In order to be innovative, you have to be fearless, you have to be comfortable with being different, and you have to be willing to stand apart from the crowd… In order to be forward-thinking you have to let go of the status quo, and you have to rephrase the problem.

Stay tuned for the final part of this series on my 50 problems. In it, I’ll share a selection of small lessons on what travelling 2517 miles has taught me about process, discipline, innovation and the power of design to solve problems big and small.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.50problems50days.com
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/50problemswebsite_sm.jpg
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/05/27/50-problems-50-days-part-1-real-empathy-innovation/
  4. 4 http://www.50problems50days.com/
  5. 5 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/homeless.jpg
  6. 6 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/notes.jpg
  7. 7 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/turin.jpg
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/beggar.jpg
  9. 9 http://www.flickr.com/photos/bogdansuditu/2710350464/
  10. 10 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/wayfinding.jpg
  11. 11 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/bike.jpg
  12. 12 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/speak.jpg
  13. 13 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/wifi.jpg
  14. 14 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/day47.jpg
  15. 15 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/11/10/redesigning-the-country-selector/
  16. 16 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ticket1.jpg
  17. 17 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ticket2.jpg
  18. 18 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/booth.jpg
  19. 19 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ticket3.jpg
  20. 20 http://www.irenepereyra.com/
  21. 21 http://www.f-i.com

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Peter Smart is a designer, speaker and writer from the UK. He recently travelled 2517 miles to try and solve 50 problems in 50 days using design. He now consults on user experience for innovation, working with organisations worldwide. You can follow him on Twitter and read more on his blog.

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  1. 1

    Awesome piece Pete! Really great! I love the part where you repurpose the ticket as a way to generate donations. At least now the paper itself has value.

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  2. 2

    The fxxk did I just read? Congrats, dude, you invented, um, charity. Now you need to spend $$$ convincing a rotating cast of hundreds of thousands of people to each donate ¢. Just maybe it would be more effective to spend $ on a campaign using the voices of those people you patronisingly pretend to consult for your ‘insight’ to lobby the government to take homelessness seriously? Can we question for a second your egocentric assumption that the only reason this hasn’t been done is that nobody before you has ever put their mind to it?

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    • 3

      The article is interesting, I like it anyways. It is not about great designs it is about finding new ideas and new ways of innovation

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      • 4

        I agree with Tony. Great design is not always in what we create, it’s in how we use what we have. It’s easy to take for granted the little things, and yet, something as basic as a train station ticket can be repurposed. It’s not always about the visual aspect or the user experience, it’s also in how it is used and what it is used for.

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  3. 5

    1. The availability of a “shelter care voucher” would be an issue, as you might not have one when you want to give one to a homeless person.
    2. Conversion rates would be another issue. When commuting to work, one certainly can’t afford to spend a lot of time actively looking for people in the need for such a voucher. As it expires within 24 hours, a lot of vouchers would expire without ever having been handed over or converted. Considering that these vouchers have already been paid for, a good chunk of money that has been spent with the intent to help homeless people would go down the drain due to conversion rates significantly below 100%.
    3. Overhead. With a 20p donation, you are creating a substantial amount of overhead just for creating, validating, administrating and using vouchers. Either the homeless person receives roughly 5p net out of 20p (if even that much) or someone else has to cough up the overhead fees so the homeless can receive the full amount – either way, the cost for overhead has to be covered somehow.
    4. There is already a solution to the problem of wanting to help whilst making sure that the receiver uses your donation the way it was intended. Buy them a sandwich. No conversion rate issues, no availability issues, no additional overhead.
    5. How did this article get approved in the first place?

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    • 6

      The biggest problem I see in this is homeless people mass gathering at tube exits and even fighting for tickets

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    • 7

      I don’t consider “buy a sandwich” a solution, Tim. You have to accomplish a lot of tasks (find a bar, queue for paying, queue for asking sandwich, go back) and the cost is not comparable, specially in the center of an historical city in Italy.

      As Pete wrote, this is an huge problem to solve. Beggars are very different: immigrants, gypsies, poor people (but not homeless) etc. Ah, and don’t forget racket, mafia, and other kind of dirty business that could exist behind beggars. There’s no one solution fits all for this kind of problem.

      Anyway, I found this article very interesting. Involves metro / bus tickets, that is rubbish after their use (and could be something else and, why not, recycled) and move a money-based market, exposed to bad affairs (begging) to a more controlled market with vouchers and no money (what if with those tickets, a beggars can buy food in special retailers, where (s)he can find help, support, and other kind of solutions?).

      So yes, I don’t think that Pete’s solution could work in Italy (shelters are free) but there’s a non-secondary insights in his process, and a very good investigation about the value of incompetence (that exists, with no doubt).

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    • 8

      “a good chunk of money that has been spent with the intent to help homeless people would go down the drain”

      Any money not redeemed could be pooled and donated to a charity involved in homelessness. This would also solve the issue of not being able to find someone to give it to as you would know even if you threw the ticket away it would go to a charity at some point.

      “Buy them a sandwich.”
      What if they are not hungry at the moment and the thing they need immediately is shelter for the night, medicine, clothing etc?

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    • 9

      Although you make some solid points, I find that any attempt at solution, whether it is a one-size fits all approach or just a piece to a larger puzzle, is still an attempt at a solution and deserves some credit. So when you ask “5. How did this article get approved in the first place?” You sound foolish. This article/idea certainly does not save the homeless round the World, but it does show how, in a design sense, we can think outside the box to enable change.

      Just my opinion.
      Great article,

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    • 10

      i second everything’s already been said and i add a few items for the author’s consideration:

      - shelters are free, you don’t have to pay rent for staying there. so the whole idea you devised is basically useless

      - most of the beggars you see on the streets (at least in big cities in northern italy) aren’t actually homeless, they’re professionals: you see them commuting to work from the outskirts of the city in the early morning and they’re usually gone by mid afternoon, to be replaced by a new fresh shift. e.g. the people who “works” traffic lights are usually managed by some kind of racket. so, even if shelters weren’t free, giving money somehow linked to paying for a night stay wouldn’t be much use.

      - very few people (basically only tourists) use the kind of ticket you’re suggesting to use, almost all regular commuters have some kind of top-up-cards or weekly/monthly/annual passes

      i’m fully aware that the point of the piece wasn’t to actually find a viable solution to the problem but to speak about the process you followed to arrive to a “novel” solution without prior knowledge.

      unfortunately “not knowing” and “incompetence” simply lead to a useless solution so, in the end, the problem actually IS about the process and not the example solution you found.

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    • 11

      I think you missed the entire point. This is about the process more than it is the result. No idea thought up in a day is going to be a great one.

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  4. 12

    Interesting article. Can you tell us where this has been implemented?

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  5. 13

    In my city living years i used to buy & donate food or public transport tickets to drug addicts & beggars. Trust in money being well spent is certainly a issue, since i’m not willing to pay directly for buying drugs.
    I like the basic concept of these tickets, but i see some issues with the system aswell. Furthermore; Perhaps for Turin it will work, but in the Netherlands everyone uses a plastic chip-card to travel public transport these days. No paper here.

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  6. 14

    Hmm. I understand the intent of this article is to demonstrate how to approach UX research, but I can’t help but feel it’s possible to over-think problems like this, where as the above commenter pointed out, giving to charity or buying a sandwich would be more effective.

    I think there’s always a temptation in our industry to offer a flashy ‘solution’, rather than a useful step forward. In this instance, it seems more likely that a simple awareness campaign or donation app for existing homeless shelters, would have a far greater impact, despite being far less attention-grabbing.

    As much as we can add useful insight into existing problems, surely in this case, the shelters understand this issue and it’s hidden complexities far better and bypassing them misses valuable information.

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    • 15

      You barely scratch the surface with that. “Change” is one thing, related to improvement, “maintenance” is another thing that keeps things just like they are.

      Giving a sandwich or donating 10 bucks is maintenance.

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  7. 16

    This article makes me feel a bit sick, the way the author is validating and border lining this whole issue is pretty dire – giving homeless people paper vouchers they can only speed in one place is about as useful as getting those pointless vouchers for Christmas. Why is this article here?

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  8. 17

    Shelters are usually free, homeless people don’t go there even though they would receive food and accommodation – because they can’t drink, or they are forced to take a shower (…).

    Another study in Poland shows that lady just as the one described, actually earns serious money more than minimum wage in Poland.

    I remember when I suggested to one of them that I’d give them bread instead of money, she left swearing the worst of swears at me.

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    • 18

      And in some shelters that are part of a religious organization, you’re not given shelter unless you’re willing to listen to religious propaganda. If I were homeless, I’d turn away at that instant. You do NOT use other peoples’ plight to further your own agenda.

      If this issue were as easy to solve as this, it would have already been solved. But people, both homeless and people who are doing well, are part of the problem. Some homeless have a hard time trying to keep to the norms we have set for ourselves in our society, i.e. working 40+ hour work weeks at a job that they don’t care for, having to own stuff they don’t care for, dealing with taxes and other norms and regulations. And in the end, who are we to pull back people who want nothing to do with our society?

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  9. 19

    Yes, standing out of the crowd will make some people lash out as we see here. I’d love to see a creative dialogue form, instead of complaints. I’m quite sure those vouchers that were thrown away would be picked up by homeless people. In Amsterdam they profide free beer for homeless people. That’s working out quite well. This idea might as well. Give it a try. What have you got to lose?

    Free Beer Story: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/world/europe/amsterdam-has-a-deal-for-alcoholics-work-paid-in-beer.html?_r=0

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  10. 20

    Brilliant idea but on reading today about the bangadeshi
    Workers being held to ransom I think that there over- seers would take a slice from them for their benefit
    Very difficult thing to escape from but still a work in progress
    Keep it going I say all over the world not just Turin

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  11. 21

    So you were in a station in the centre of Turin with the ticket of public transport of Milan? It’s a bit strange :D

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  12. 22

    I’m seeing a lot of comment negativity here; from people with nothing constructive to input into the conversation.

    Sure this idea sucks in many ways in its current form… but at least it’s AN IDEA.

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  13. 23

    When renting a car in the past I’ve often ticked the option to pay a small “tax” to plant trees, and it made sense in context. I support but would not otherwise donate to that particular cause. If ATMs had option to donate to the poor, I think I would use it.

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  14. 24

    Where is the money coming from for all of this?
    Surely any money spent on the infrastructure for this kind of project could be put to better use in a more direct manner. How about subsidising the hostels instead? Making then more affordable for everyone, not just the person who managed to collect the most.

    I think this suggestion turns a serious issue into a bit of a game.

    But I do applaud you for genuinely sitting down and thinking of an idea. I think the homeless problem is partially due to not enough people caring.

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  15. 25

    Wow. The comments have been brutal. I guess they can’t see the forest through the trees. Everyone is so focused on his example of helping the homeless, that no one is talking about his real point of trying to approach a problem without using your experiences.

    How many entrepreneurs/inventors developed incredible solutions to problems in a field that they knew little about? All because they didn’t have these experience constraints. Compare that to all the ideas that were thrown out because the person felt it was too simple and someone must have already thought of it.

    You sabotage yourself more often with over thinking or sticking with the status quo of conventional thinking.

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    • 26

      Agreed, the point isn’t the quality of the solution but the approach. Though I wished he had actually pitched his idea to at least one homeless person (along with a coffee and a sandwich) to see if his target audience would actually accept this form of donation in the first place.

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  16. 27

    I think this idea is a great start! the fact that you are getting so much flack is a good thing because that means you are on to something. You shouldn’t have to go through corporate red tape to solve a problem, but let the small solution work itself out. Nothing is perfect, but you had a great idea for a start and like any other idea, it isn’t spic and span right out of the box but will start a good conversation and change.

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  17. 28

    Administrative costs and corruption would eat up 19 out of the 20 cents, we all know that.

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  18. 29

    Just regarding this particular issue of homeless people begging, rather than the whole “50 problems in 50 days” itself (which if nothing else, I applaud for its ambition) – I think Russell Brand (yes, great sage that he is) made some interesting points about people being wary of giving money to homeless people in case they use it “irresponsibly”. By irresponsibly, I presume we’re talking about them spending it on drink/drugs.

    1) Homeless people who are drug users will buy and use them whether or not you happen to give them money to do so – they will get the money one way or another. If you give them something else, that’s great – but it won’t have any impact on the drug use.

    2) Why do homeless people use drink or drugs (alcohol being a drug, I’m not really distinguishing between them here…)? Primarily because they want to escape their life, as with most drug users (Russell should now, he was one). If they then use your money to buy drugs, is that really such a bad thing? For them, that’s a pretty valid way to spend it.

    Anyway, I guess the thing is, that as other people have said, the question is why do people sleep rough in the first place, and how do we reduce it happening? The answer to that is long and complex and includes a lot of debate about inequality, personal responsibility,etc (in other words, it’s very political). But still – kudos for even thinking about a way to tackle it in some way or other – even if the answer isn’t “right” , it adds to the debate, I suppose…

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  19. 30

    I must admit I don’t think the specific example could work or would be taken in consideration – being Italian, I could explain you also why charity doesn’t work like it would let’s say in the UK (before moving to London, I had never seen so much interest in charity…)

    But apart from that, I like the idea and I wish one day to be brave enough to accept the same challenge. Sometimes I feel I could use my skills in a slightly different way and achieve so much more! We need to stop looking at design as something that always requires the expression of an artist and the precision of an engineer, and start approaching the little things that can make a small or big difference. One step at a time… isn’t that the best way? But if we don’t even try, we need to wait for the next genius appearing in the century!

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  20. 31

    I was feeling the urge to unload on the author too due to his whole choosing not to be charitable to an individual because of uncertainty of how responsibly the recipient would spend the money. Does the same amount of consideration go into all of his purchases and donations to “legitimate” charities? That kind of thinking is what triggered my initial reaction, and probably lies behind the general negative reaction so far to this post.

    As I read more, however. I think that the solution that he eventually came up with is brilliant in a lot of ways. Yes, it is not without problems, but like most good or great ideas, the core idea is fundamentally sound and the remaining problems can be solved. With a solid idea as a jumping off point everything else on the road to implementation are just details yet to be worked out.

    So, in my opinion, while the author’s personal concepts of compassion and charity may be suspect, his problem solving skills should be lauded. It may even be that the two are related. Had he done the “right” thing initially his conscience may not have kept goading his mind to continue thinking about the problem.

    This was a thought-provoking post, and that alone made it worthy of publication. Beats the hell out of one more article by some “designer” who woke up one morning to discover that he had to start creating interfaces for more than one particular device and now is going to share how he survived this apocalyptic event.

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  21. 32

    Asking “Why?” can go hand-in-hand with asking “Why not?”

    Many people build knowledge based on associations, but don’t take time to question whether their associations are logical in and of themselves. Simply put, a person asked me “Pepsi or Coke?” to which I said “Pepsi”, and he replied “Ah, I guess you hate Coke, eh?”

    Choosing Pepsi does not in and of itself, mean that I hate Coke; in fact, Coke is a great soda, and is a close #2 choice for me. But some people condition themselves to see the world as black and white, without the millions of shades of gray in between.

    When you question how you ponder and observe these situations, you are looking for gray in what was thought of as a black and white conundrum. Questioning these faculties allows us to gain experience in adjusting how we observe future instances.

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  22. 33

    To the author: You seemed so blinded by your determination to think “differently” or “innovatively” that you couldn’t let yourself take the most simple, immediate and compassionate action: to give some loose change to the homeless person. Why did you think that by doing that simple act of kindness, it would somehow block your thought process in coming up with another idea?

    I thought the role of a UX researcher was to try and put themselves in the place of the “user” and to be empathic. Did you ever stop and think: what if I was homeless and I asked a passer-by for some change and they refused because, although they were kind and compassionate, they didn’t trust me to spend that money wisely or know how I would spend it. Therefore they didn’t feel they could give me some change.

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  23. 34

    Did you speak to the homeless themselves? What about the beggar woman? They are people too, why don’t you ask them, as I guess each one of them has a unique story to tell. Knowing why these people got in the problems they are in and finding solutions on a personal basis, whilst also trying to resolve the issues that create homelessness seem far more effective than another charity campaign…

    I am sorry for the harsh comment, but if you applaud yourself finding such ‘brilliant’ solutions, you deserve it.

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  24. 35

    This piece has left me torn.
    the main problem i have with the piece is the completely misguided assumption that good design can be discovered in 24 hours. Maybe you are smarter than myself, but in my own experience my first 24 hours with a problem is an absolute mess. A week later Is when i can begin settling into what might be a good direction. And to assume that just because you call yourself a designer, everything you come up with is great? The power isn’t in design itself. Real power lies is in spending blood, sweat, and tears fighting it.

    And when i say this i’m usually tackling a problem much much much smaller than global homelessness. I can’t seem to possibly say anything good about someone who thinks that spending 24 hours on a problem that complex is a good idea at all.
    Thats asking for disaster in my opinion,
    Reminds me of the whole Kony thing, and that was pretty F****d up.

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  25. 36

    A food chain in Munich sold once prepacked bags of essential food, that went directly to people in need. Customers waiting in line could grab a bag and pay 10 more Euros for charity. Great idea and no begging involved.

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  26. 37

    This is one of the first articles and comments streams that has been thought provoking in a while, great to read.

    For me, the articles is really talking about two different things which I don’t think many have struck upon.

    Firstly we have the industry side, the UX, the process of design and creative problem solving approach mindset which is great to work and be involved in. Putting yourself in the shoes of people who require solutions and being able to have the skills to design and think creatively about solving them undeniably leads to awesome ideas.

    We then have the subject, homelessness which is a great example to use and is outside of any of the majority of our day-to-day roles. This I believe then elevates to no longer being something that can be accomplished by just the above. This is a humanitarian problem that requires a mass re-structure and humongous undertaking at a global level.

    That was never going to be solved at this level though it does show that great thinking, whether applied to large or small scale problems can lead to great things.

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  27. 38

    Alexandre Sartini

    January 7, 2014 12:32 am

    I’m surprised by the fact many of you are only focusing the solution part of the article which is actually quite small. The article was not about explaining the solution in details, its risks and constraints but about the process of finding a solution.

    It is obvious he won’t solve homeless issues in 24h. But what his solution suggests is that we may find small improvements once combined will have a significant impact on the issue.

    For those trying to find why it will not work, use your mind to think how to make it work!

    But actually, if you still want to discuss the solution part, this is already working in other countries . The concept is called the “suspended coffee” or coffeesharing. When you buy a coffee, you can ask the bartender to buy additionnal coffee for the homeless. It is already used in 19 countries…

    http://www.coffeesharing.com/places

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  28. 39

    Whether this ticket system is right or not, but this article has given me new perspectives to think on.

    Thanks Pete for writing such a great piece of article.

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  29. 40

    What a well thought-out, fantastic solution! It’s great that you are working towards making a difference in the world through design. Thank you for sharing!

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  30. 41

    It’s a strange article, many words about nothing. The beggars problem is not solved. I’ll tell you more, most of them are part of bigger organizations and they just work in the street. You see, you didn’t want to give that older woman money, because you didn’t know how it’ll be spent. Many people think just the same way as you do.

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  31. 42

    Pete, despite the critisizm from some, I think your journey of discovery sounds great, I think you may have found out as much about yourself as you have about design, and i applaud you.

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  32. 43

    The homeless problem cannot be solved by charity, but by making housing a human right.

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  33. 45

    Strictly on the homeless issue: I’ve read all the pros and cons, and while I agree with more than half of each stated opinions, I would like to say this: even if it was not in the mind of the initiator, the ‘voucher’ solution could do one other thing, that is – discourage begging.

    In the eventuality of educating the citizens of a fictional town in which the ticket solution would be a great solution (e.g. a small town, with small flourishing businesses and an already evident civic agility) to use these vouchers regularly, then those beggars who used the money they got on things we don’t want to think about, or simply viewed begging as an easier alternative to actually working somewhere, would be discouraged to continue these actions, as they wouldn’t be profitable any longer. Some of them would move somewhere else, some would sell the vouchers to other beggars (I imagine), but some would actually get a job.

    The effectiveness of this particular solution lies in the configuration of the micro-society it’s implemented in. I think the idea of mediating “charity” as a way to both encourage it and make it more effective (benefiting the society as a whole) is not that divorced from reality. But this is not really about design anymore.

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  34. 46

    I have been watching this article over the last few days and its interesting that everybody slams the solution, lets remember, as with many things (design included), they are not always right first time.

    The most interesting point in this article is the approach. The power of asking why or what and putting aside any assumptions to achieve a goal is a powerful skill. Never be afraid to ask stupid questions as its better to be stupid for a brief period, than the rest of your life.

    The 5 monkeys in a cage metaphor is a good way of demonstrating where the why question is important.

    So I find it interesting that most people just look at the solution offered in this article rather than the journey taken, for me, that is the part people should learn from.

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  35. 47

    There are some articles that make you moan the time you spent (i.e. wasted) clicking and reading and there others that make you know that THIS is what the internet was invented for, the article you print to hardcopy, bookmark and forward to all your friends with a READ THIS!*

    *What type of article is this one? I leave that task as an exercise for the reader..

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  36. 48

    Interesting and provocative.
    It may be hubris to think you can achieve an answer to homelessness in 24/hrs but it is essential to at least try.

    The homeless issue is much more complicated than we will see on the surface, so it is doubtful any ONE solution will work.

    Regardless of the above, it is best we take this article as an example of ‘out of the box thinking’ more than as an actually “solution”

    Think “process” not “product”

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  37. 49

    Great article. It inspired me to build on your card solution. What if homeless shelters gave out similar cards with QR codes to individuals that need their services. In order to help a specific homeless person one would scan the card’s QR code with their smartphone and be sent to a website wherein one could donate to that individual. The donation could only be used at the associated shelter.
    Just a thought. Did I mention, it was a great article.

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  38. 50

    People do understand that this article was using metaphors, right?

    Homeless=UX
    His solution= the designer coming at the issue of the user in a non-pedetrian manner and creating a UX semi-unique towards the needs of the company and or individual.

    The examples have nothing to do with the actual realization of the problem, they are simply a selection of items for his research.

    How he went about solving the problem is the important thing. Not the homeless or the train monoply (which would have issue anyway because not all people play that game, so a locatized version in the culture it would be designed for would have to be substituted) but the idea is interesting.

    It’s about idea generating and creative problem solving beyond the obvious.

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  39. 51

    it’s an interesting approach, – for those of you who think this is about homelessness or ticket vouchers or money, you should read it again, and focus on the approach to problem solving. I agree that the ‘problem’ described here isn’t the ‘right’ one, but at least the process of finding a solution based on knowing vs not knowing is clearly explained, and makes a lot of sense btw. good work Pete.

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  40. 52

    Doroteya Milanova

    January 13, 2014 9:31 am

    Really enjoyed reading this blog Pete. I love your analogy and although I’m not a designer (I’m a digital marketer), I found a lot of information and inspiration in your words.

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  41. 53

    The ticket of your image is of Milan System on Transport, not Turin :D.
    Turin ticket is this: http://www.torinofree.it/images/immagini_articoli/biglietto_trasporti_gtt_torino.png

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  42. 54

    Where’s the ‘Share on facebook’ button or link? Pretty bad UX Design! Disappointed.

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  43. 55

    Wonderful post!

    I am currently working on an assignment in school where I am supposed to discover a problem and find a way to solve it as a designer. I was a little worried as to how to go about finding problems but this post has inspired me. The problem identification and solution approach is really interesting. I will try out and hopely i will be able to find a problem using your approach…fingers crossed

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  44. 56

    I don’t undestand why so many people are talking about this example.
    This is simpy an example and the point is how to find the problemand try to reach the solution.

    For me this is great article about thinking “out of box”. I know this feelling when you get another wsbiste/ecommerce/application and at the beginnign you think “yeah, this should be a good idea to implement in this project”.

    I think it could be a great background for workshop for sellers in IT. Often they sell somenthing before they try to understand the problem, without questions.
    I will use this knowledge for this type of workshops.

    Thank you Pete!

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  45. 57

    Daniele Begotti

    March 1, 2014 4:56 pm

    Nice article! :) about the solution, in milan many homelesses usually assist the commuters buying their metro tickets, with the hope of having the change. So I think your solution should work…

    PS: why are the tickets in the pics from the milan metro?

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  46. 58

    I’d like to say 2 things.
    First, there’s no point in evaluating a solution only for what it is. To me what is really interesting is the process that brings a designer to one of the infinite right solutions. Following the UCD process allows designers to find a solution based on user needs, on observations of context and activities involved and based on the personality of the designer in charge. That is the most interesting part of being a designer.
    This article made me question myself about my idea on being a designer and what I would do if I was in your shoes. Plus, I think that it’s a great idea to force your self at spotting-and-trying-to-solve a problem per day.
    Thanks for this opportunity.
    However, I’d be more engaged at reading this article if I had found techniques and methods for assessing the problem, for interviewing users and for fast prototyping/testing instead of reading how much a designer can think about solving a problem without reaching a solution.
    Thanks,
    Sara

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  47. 59

    Its really impressive.

    The way you projected your journey of finding the solution is simply best. May be many of the people are not able to accept the proposed solution. But the way you reached to the solution is acceptable.

    And also i really like the concept of 50 problems in 50 days.

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