How to find ‘invisible’ problems?

What do customers want has been that billion dollar question everyone is after. The bigger and better question is, what is driving people’s actions?
November 22, 2018
Joe Gebbia, while explaining the story of AirBnB, talks about how a personal experience hosting a stranger triggered him to embark on the project. What’s interesting about the story is that, the experience led him to question some of the “biases” he was brought up with. Questioning these biases led him to discover great human values as well as a big commerce opportunity, which he then uncovered for rest of the world.
Facebook was started as a way to share things we want with people we want.
Reed Hastings started thinking of Netflix when he got a 40$ late fee from Blockbuster.
And it repeats over and over. Uber, Instagram, Apple and more. Successful founders of these companies said “why not?!” to problems no one is talking about — problems that were invisible to everyone else!
What makes such problems “invisible”? And more importantly, what causes only a select few to “see” such invisible problems?
When you hear the term “Netflix” what do you think of?
Movies? Binge-Watching? Entertainment?
In short, Netflix is a way for us to entertain ourselves. We had street plays, theaters, operas, cinemas, televisions and now Netflix. Netflix, using latest technology, gives us the “cheaper, easier, better solution” for “entertaining” ourselves.
Similarly, when it comes to “moving ourselves from one place to another” we have evolved from walking to horses to trams to railways to cars to uber.

Why do we continue to innovate?

We always had these needs — need to entertain ourselves, need to move as fast as possible, need to connect with others, need to self express, need to be accepted and more. And we keep looking for ways that would help us evolve in our journey to meet these needs.
We are in constant search of products that help us evolve.
There is one problem though…
During our industrial era, we built products that helped us evolve in our physical world. Dishwashers, washing machines, detergents, tooth pastes — we were evolving our physical worlds and we needed innovations to make our lives better. To continue innovating in this world, we needed to observe people and get an idea of what is missing. Observing where people spent a lot of time and energy on — gave clues to finding the next big thing.


But this is 2018…
It has been three decades since computers came into our lives. We have moved up the chain of Maslow’s hierarchy from physiological and safety based needs to psychological and personal fulfillment based needs.
The nature of our needs have changed — from physical world problems to cognitive problems. But, we still look for clues in people’s lives to understand what problems to solve for.
The nature of the problem has changed, but the ways we look for the problems have not.


We keep telling young entrepreneurs to “look for a customer problem”. What problem are you solving for? What is the need ?— we often ask. True, it is important to build solutions for real problems.
But are we looking at “problems”, the right way?
Coming back to “invisible problems”.
We love to idolise the winners. For years we have been heaping praises on the founders of Facebooks and Instagrams and Ubers for their “genius”! How amazing of these creators to stumble upon that billion dollar idea and capitalise on it?! But, if any one sets to re-create such successes, they are told that it is a fool’s play to do. Why? Because, supposedly such things are either act of God or individual genius and there is no way to predictably repeat such events.


In fact, we are told by a lot of people not to chase problems like Facebook, because these problems do not exist, right? How will you build anything if there is no problem to begin with?
Are these unicorns an exception that we should avoid or is there something wrong in the way we look at “problems” ?
Understanding the big customer problems of the next few decades means understanding the “customer” deeply.
Imagine a scenario. You come home, you are hungry, you had a bad day. You look for something to eat in your fridge. You see a beautiful piece of pizza worth 1000 calories. And a bowl of green salad. Just last week you committed yourself to fitness, vowing to lose 5kgs in 2 weeks. What do you do?


You could give in to your cravings, finish up all the pizza and then feel bad about it.
You could go for the less enticing option — eat the salad and feel good about your choice.
So you have this desire to eat and nourish yourself, a belief that salad is good for you and pizza is not and an emotion that signals whether your action is good for you or not.
But the traditional real world — the “business as usual” world, does not care. If am a pizza company all I care about is how to make you buy my pizza. It doesn’t matter to me whether you are hungry or not(desire) or whether you believe if pizzas are bad for you(beliefs) or that you will feel bad even if you did buy my pizza and eat it(emotional signals). None of this matters to me and I will continue pushing my discounts and latest “strawberry” pizza on your news feed all the time!
We are beings of desires, of motivations. We have desires to eat, reproduce, connect, self express, contribute, be accepted etc. We chase our desires all the time. Our beliefs are our value systems that help us regulate our desires. Our emotions signal to us if what we do is making us progress towards our goals or not. This is what companies like Uber, Netflix etc. know and use
 in their quest to tap the billion dollar opportunities.'s Desire - Belief - Emotion Model

Successful products from Instagram to Airbnb have all unearthed a deeper desire within us to evolve in certain aspects — Entertainment, Transportation, Self-Expression, Connecting to others etc. They then use our belief systems to emotionally connect with us and eventually lead us to change our behaviours.
By understanding these desires and beliefs of people, we can understand
How to find hard core problems that connect with people’s strong desires,How to connect an idea/product to this need, and how to get users to change their behaviour and achieve their desires
For example, let’s take Facebook.
In the world of Friendster and Myspace, Facebook was “yet another” networking app. But what did Facebook get that others did not?
We have a strong desire to connect, to self-express and more importantly — to know “what’s happening in our world”. Facebook made all this easier, cheaper and much more fulfilling than ever before. Facebook got users to connect with other people they share strong bond with, got people to talk and share about things they like.
And when a new user gets on to the network, she finds “her” people, talking about things that “she” likes. This is the “belief” system that Facebook taps into.
Slowly, with a bunch of other behavioural hacks, Facebook moved conversations from traditional channels to online — changing the behaviour of billions of people.
None of this would be possible if we did not have the desire to begin with. And none of this would be possible, if Facebook did not know our beliefs — beliefs that we use to interface, understand and connect with “our world”.
By being oblivious to people’s underlying desires and belief systems, we are oblivious to real opportunities that are in front of our faces.
What do customers want has been that billion dollar question everyone is after. The bigger and better question is, what is driving people’s actions? Because in it, there are indicators to the future unicorn ideas we are all waiting for.
Harish is a product story-teller obsessed with human behaviour, technology, and future. Connects products to the minds of people @

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