Friday January 29, 2016

Writing as Problem Solving

Several years ago I personally discovered (and I am certainly not the first person to do this) that writing out problems I encounter while designing often leads me to a clear solution. This exercise began as an attempt to solicit feedback from my coworkers via email, and to this day I often write inside an email program, even if I have no intention of sending.

The exercise is simple enough: I write out my thoughts on the problem as a solicitation for help, frame it up to ask for the recipient’s thoughts at the end, review it, and edit repeatedly for clarity.

By working through the problem with the mindset of explaining it to another person, a fuller story emerges. The process of articulating a thought to someone who cannot be expected to have the same understanding of the minutia — as the writer does — forces the mind to see the problem in different ways. It also requires discovering or recalling details that may have seemed inconsequential. And, naturally, it requires broader thinking to properly situate the problem in the recipient’s mind. All of this can lead to some very satisfying “a-ha!” moments.

I’m not exactly sure why this technique seems to work so well for me, but I have a few good guesses:

Writing itself
Like note taking, the simple act of writing a thing down makes it easier to recall and work with. The words are right there, right in front of my eyes. I have to make sense of it.

Forced focus
For me, at least, writing is a focusing activity. In order to really work at explaining my issue to another person, I have to concentrate more intently than if I was simply sketching possible solutions. I am forced to physically adapt my environment to the task (no noise or visual distractions).

A sense of manageability
There’s something soothing about reducing your huge problem down to a few blocks of text. I find that the amount of text I write always makes the problem seem less daunting. Like, “This problem is only 3 paragraphs long? Whew!”

Acknowledging all the information
Since the person I am writing to is not aware of all the details of my problem, I am forced to include information that I may be taking for granted. Seeing this information written down forces me to actively deal with it in my problem-solving.

This exercise naturally forces me to repeatedly run through and remold my narrative.

It can take some time, and I can’t say that it works 100% of the time, but it does work. If you’ve never tried this approach before, give it a shot. It’s not the only way to achieve clarity, but it’s definitely satisfying.

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