Judging potential products too early could kill great ideas before they ever see the light of day and this is particularly true for products solving abstract problems, or those not solving a particular problem at all.
From students to designers to startups of all scales, we often judge an idea on the weight of the problem it intends to solve. For example, we need food to live, and we need to do something about the excess Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere, so meat-alternative startups, like Impossible Burger and THIS, have an obvious and validated problem. Valuing ideas based on the problem they intend to solve is fundamental, but it doesn't always paint the whole picture. Sometimes there is no clear problem, or your idea solves a different problem than the one you started with. It doesn't take much to come up with a great solution for a problem you're not sure exists.
Lately, I've been thinking about the void in-between 'problem' and 'non-problem'. It's a space that exists in a product's infancy when the market has yet to have its say. Most product ideas don't enter this space. They are either tackling an obvious problem or have since been cleared off the whiteboard. But for ideas that enter this void, every next step could make or break the product's success. Think of it like a Traffic Light on amber. It won't stay on amber, but it could go either way.
So what are examples of this, and what do you do if you find yourself here? I think these products were in the void at some point in their early development. Their designers may have lost sight of the original problem, or there may never have been one. It might have been caused by a technology push, or, it might just be a solution to a problem that's hard to identify. Some were successful, and others were not.
Nowadays, it's clear to see the value the iPad provides its users. It's an extremely portable, powerful work and entertainment device. But when it was first launched, it was heckled as a giant iPhone. People couldn't see why you'd need something in between the size of an iPhone and a MacBook Air, and that was a perfectly reasonable critique. It would be really easy to mothball the project internally, citing its lack of clear problem as the reason. But as we know, it went on to sell pretty well.
While the iPad may have been in this space at one point in time, it debuted with enough features that it could be used for a myriad of problems. The point here is not to tell you what problem the iPad solves, but to highlight the fact that being a good solution to a variety of smaller problems was enough to tip the scale towards a problem-solving product. Unfortunately for others, the scale tipped the other way…
When a company like Google, flush with resources, talent and money launch a product that flops, it doesn't go unnoticed. Google Glass was a technology push. When you're pushing a technology, you must justify it by integrating problem-solving uses. The iPad launched with all of Apple's core features as well as an app ecosystem. Google Glass was launched to developers first - meaning they had to buy it and then develop apps for it. This was enough to tip them from the void into the non-problem solution.
The Juicero Press was a $400 juicer that was trying to be Keurig for fruit juice drinks. The company raised an eye-watering $120 million from investors hoping to recreate the recurring revenue coffee pod machines have enjoyed for the last decade. As the company was preparing to launch the product, a Bloomberg exposé went viral. It turns out you could just squeeze the fruit bags by hand and you'd get pretty much the same result, rendering the $400 machine worthless.
The kicker here? It was a really well-built machine, teardowns at the time revealed. Before the company's collapse, Hotels were buying up the Press because they were far cleaner than traditional juicing machines. If Juicero had recognised they were in the void, they might have taken steps to find people who needed their product faster. They could have found themselves solving hotels’ problems sooner, instead of solving non-problems for households. The scale had tipped long before that though, and it was too little too late for Juicero, who shut down soon after that fatal Bloomberg article.
Thirsty Thought's Homer Robot
When I joined Thirsty Thoughts and told people about our products; robots that pour alcohol using 'mind control' and gesture control, people would often react the same way. "Is that really a problem people have?" Homer, our first robot, was probably in the void at some point in its early development. It was a novel way to pour beer, but it was probably hard to see the actual value or problem it solved. It's not any faster than pulling a pint by hand. If an executive had come into the company, perhaps from a corporate background, the project could’ve been shelved then and there.
By demoing the robot at an event early in its development, the team proved Homer's worth. Pouring a pint with 'mind control' turns out to be immense fun, and it's turned the product into a bit of a game, and that was enough to tip the scale. People love competing to see who can pour the best pint, and, as a result, the robots practically guarantee a good time. For conferences and events, these robots attract people to stands, and it leads to a 340% uplift in brand engagement. What might have seemed like a non-problem solution is definitely worthwhile now.
When you find yourself with a product that's morphed away from your original problem and you land in the void, remember that every next step will count. If you're no longer solving the original problem, ask yourself what problems you are solving, and who might have them. Then you'll be able to shift your product from the void and into a valuable product. Don't judge your non-problem ideas too soon, and always remember;
"There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly" - Buckminster Fuller