Puzzle Versus Mystery in Product Dev

Market research does not generate a product. Unfortunately for those that would fund too much analysis, they will get paralysis.

Malcom Gladwell, the wonderful writer and thinker for the New Yorker, recently wrote an article about the difference between a puzzle and a mystery.

His thesis was when you have enough pieces (data) of a puzzle, the solution is easy — mechanical — to find. With a mystery, such is not the case. In fact, with too much information, the mystery often becomes more evasive.

My thought is you need more mystery solving than puzzle completing skills when it comes to developing products. And when it comes to marketing. And lots of other things that have to do with startups.

The simplest explanation for this is the idea that a “user cannot tell you what they want when they don’t know that ‘what’ even exists.” This is basic. Unfortunately, once we have a general idea of what the “what” is–let’s call it a concept–we’re often trapped into thinking we can then ask the user about the concept. We can get all kinds of data. Like misleading data.

I don’t mean to discount gathering information from users, customers, prospects — can’t we just call them people?! — any more than I would suggest that a mystery solver wouldn’t look for clues in likely places.

Experimentation, loose observation, and lateral thinking are critical components.

When an artist says “they just don’t get it” she’s often right! It’s not arrogance speaking.

Puzzle completing skills produce things like the Pontiac Aztec. They produce software that doesn’t get used. Those that have an excess of such skills often trivialize the success of a solved mystery by pointing to the now ‘obvious’ reasons for such success.

Freedom, discovery, open mindedness. Obsession. Humility along the way. Large helpings of interpretation and nuance.

I hesitate to use the word instinct here. The problem is a puzzle completer is just as instinctive as the mystery solver. Both skill sets are instinctive. Both are valuable. Make sure you have plenty of the latter on your team.


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