Saturday, November 19, 2005

Some thoughts on problem finding

There are some great brainstorms being posted over at BrainReaction's Online Brainstorming Tool. The following problem caught my eye:

How can I keep the sun out of my eyes after it is lower than my car's visor?

and it got me thinking about how I can find and list simple problems (both obvious and non obvious) such as the visor problem. Obviously I could develop a 'problem awareness' and list problems as I encounter them in everyday life. However, one approach I'm toying with involves intensifying some aspect of a situation (often to ridiculous or impossible levels), listing what problems would arise from this change and then considering how these are similar to real-life problems.

So with the car example, I could focus on some aspect of the car - the headlights - and then list a measurable aspect of the headlights - the brightness. Then I would imagine an increase in the brightness of the lights. The brightness would increase inexorably - starting out with a dim glow and continuing up to a ridiculous level where the lights would be as bright as the sun or even the brighest object in the universe.

On this 'journey' I would be able to pick out problems and relate them back to real life problems:

At one stage the brightness would become too much for the driver. This could then trigger awareness of the driver's visor problem above.

Eventually the brightness would become too much for other drivers who would be dazed. This triggers awareness of the problem of people driving with lights on full beam in the dark and forgetting to revert to normal brightness.

As the brightness increased then the attention of passers-by would be drawn to the car and the incredible brightness. This triggers awareness of the problem of rubbernecking (especially on motorways where rubbernecking on the other side of the motorway can cause traffic jams).

Another example

I could look at another part of the car - the front bumper - and increase a measurable aspect - the weight - of the bumper.

Problems on the 'journey' of weight increase:

As the weight of the bumper increased the performance of the car would be impaired and it would slow down. This is perhaps similar to the real life problem of a car running low or out of fuel.

As the weight increased (and if the car was still able to function) then the bumper would start to scrape on the road producing sparks. This is similar to the problem of an exhaust breaking off making sparks appear.

Eventually the bumper would bring the car to a halt. As the bumper becomes inexorably heavier then eventually an indentation would appear in the road surface. This suggests the problem of potholes on the road.

I think maybe this approach has some potential. I'll tinker with it over the next few weeks and see if I can make the approach systematic.

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