Book review: Problem Solving 101

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Normally we review books full of design pattern or interaction logic, but this time we’re going more abstract: problem solving. As designers we face complex challenges and have to make loads of decisions, will Problem Solving 101 make this easier? Hopefully.

About the book

Problem Solving 101 was written as a guide to teach Japanese schoolchildren critical thinking skills. After that it quickly gained popularity among adults. In the book Watanabe uses simple and funny examples to learn the reader how to approach a problem. He uses three cases to educate the reader:

  • A band called The Mushroom Lovers don’t seem to gain a larger audience. How will they solve this?
  • John the Octopus wants to become a famous CG animator and needs to save money for a computer.
  • Kiwi is a soccer talent who wants to become a star. Which soccer school should she choose?

While the last two examples are great to read and learn problem solving, it’s mainly the first case I want to write about. In the field of interaction design there are often situations where you have to make decisions. Problems arise where you, as a designer, have to decide how to approach it in order to solve it. The case of The Mushroom Lovers provides some interesting examples in how you should approach this.
Without describing the entire case (and thus copying the book) I want to show you some of the examples in the book:

Logic tree

A logic tree helps you break a problem down into categories without leaving anything out. You group similar items under the same branch. It will help you “identify all the potential root causes of a problem and generate a wide variety of solutions.” This is a great tool when you have a certain question and need to investigate the possible outcomes. When forcing yourself to make certain nothing is left out, you also force yourself to approach different options. A great and simple way to make sure you don’t go for the first (and most obvious) solution.

Yes/no tree

A logic tree can be transformed in a yes/no tree. This form of tree helps you find the root cause of a problem or decide how to solve a problem. By creating the tree you are forced to structure and make a complete overview. At the end of the tree you’ll find the different causes/reasons why the problem could have arisen. From here on you can start investigating which of the reasons is the real root cause.

Problem-solving design plan

After you found the possible causes you have to find the root cause. In order to do this you’ll have to research which of the causes is the most important one. You could directly jump into research, but that’ll probably cause more problems than help you. So first: setup a problem-solving design plan. In this plan you’ll setup a hypothesis and rationale in order to focus your research. This is a very good approach since it will give you focus during the research, enabling you to ask the right questions in order to tackle the problem. Out of this also follows a good way to do the research.

After the research you can map the results on the yes/no tree and see where the root cause lies. And than it’s up to you to solve it.


Problem Solving 101 is a book which you can read in a single evening. It’s very clearly written and in it’s core focused on children, but don’t let this put you off…. When you are dealing with challenges and have to solve problems, take your time to read this book. It gives some very simple but effective tips and methods.

Book details
Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People
author: Ken Watanabe
publisher: Portfolio
details: 111 pages, hardcover

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

2 comments on this article

  1. reinko on

    Hi Jeroen,
    Did I just seriously read “A logic tree helps you break a problem down into categories without leaving anything out. ” ?
    I think you would’ve done fine at Industrial Design in Delft!

    I like the cover and sounds like it’d be a fun read though, so when I run accross it…

    Keep on!

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