Step 1 of The Design Process: Verification vs. Validation

I got a carrot peeler, but is it the right one for what I need? Design Thinking

Step One of The Design Process is to Define the Problem. Understanding and leveraging validation over verification may be a much greater tool to identifying the right problem to solve — more than even a focus on empathy.
In fact, when working through the design process and design thinking on your campus, being careful and deliberate with verification and validation to ask the right question can be the difference between success and failure, even in this initial step. Understanding the problem and the related work is part of doing quality work towards solving the problem, not an extra step.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” -Yes, I just quoted Albert Einstein.

A quick reminder of the Design Process:

  1. Define the Problem (Verification vs. Validation)
  2. Collect Information (Nodes and Links)
  3. Brainstorm and Analyze (Modeling or Ideation)
  4. Develop Solutions (Prototyping)
  5. Solicit Feedback (Closed Loop)
  6. Improve Your Design (Iterations, Iterations, Iterations!)

In this first step, being sure that we are asking the right question is far more critical than making sure we are answering the question correctly. In fact, we are not even trying to answer the question at all. Answering the question comes much later and soliciting answers while working on step one can be a major problem. Validation is the work we do in design thinking to make sure that we are asking the right question while verification is working to answer the question correctly.

Let’s focus on validation, where we can do work to be sure that we are asking the right question. Let’s imagine we are designing a box for clients. All we know is that the box should be a meter long, half as tall and wide. Also, it needs to have a removable lid. That is a great start to defining the problem, but we are not done, we need to do more to validate that we have asked the exact right question. Is there a material we need to use, how strong will it need to be, what will be stored in the box and will it hold liquids or be exposed to extreme temperatures. These are all good questions to ask. In this way, we are looking to validate that we have the right definition to seek the right solution for success.

Had we only verified that we can answer the question from our initial criteria, we could have made any number of different boxes that are a meter long, half as wide and tall with a removable lid. Those different boxes may or may not serve our client’s needs because we don’t yet know enough about the problem to make a meaningful solution. This is a very poorly defined problem where little is done to validate the exact question to be answered and almost any box could have been verified incorrectly to be the right solution.

Verification of questions only happens all too often. A miss-match of student data and correlative teacher actions are assumed to be causal or a new initiative is chosen for a school that hasn’t through in investigating the causes of their own problem. Educators often lament the passing from one trend to another with little understanding about why the change is made and how there is too little to show for the change in student results. In this way, change in education comes with an audible sigh and a bit more than a whiff of skepticism.

Recently, I worked with an international school leader who was due to turn in a complete recommendation to fellow school leaders with a fully formed plan regarding their most pressing problem. With nearly a full leadership turnover, how should the school’s leadership work to launch its “New Era?” We had about two hours together and like many Design Thinkers, we spent most of our time asking questions to clarify the problem. I carefully acted as the investigator trying to understand the problem and she worked to explain from a client/insider’s perspective. Primarily, the school is beginning a new era with an influx of new leadership, but they didn’t yet have a method to do the work it would require to begin that new era in earnest. I asked about who was on that journey, what kind of commitment each member could make and what working structures already existed. I also asked about what would make their work timely with events like accreditation, re-evaluating their mission and what elements the community expects to be maintained.

We had hardly touched a piece of large chart paper until perhaps the last half hour when we intuitively knew that the problem felt well defined. Then the flood of ideas filled the paper and a scheme emerged right away. Having spent the majority of our time working on defining the problem through validation, our model was easy to make. I hope she returned to her school and developed a few more models and felt ready to prototype one of those plans. With such a clear focus in having fully validated her question/problem, she will now know when she has verified a good outcome for that question/problem.    

The process to verify that you have the correct question to answer can initially feel frustrating, as  a much slower pace of work your team is used to, but frontloading all of the work it takes to verify can prevent false starts, choosing the wrong question to answer an incredible waste. In fact, the process of verification can feel like very satisfying and meaningful work that encourages your team to invest in the process more fully and achieve desired results quicker once moving on from their initial work to define the problem. Do keep in mind that the design process can and should flow forwards and backwards so don’t be afraid to return to step one and continue to define the problem when it is clear that the work was never complete to begin with.  


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