Asking all the questions–answers in the form of inquiry

May 26 2015

I’ve found you can take yourself almost anywhere with public data and that with this resource comes a dauntingly vast number of possibilities. Our team launched into the second week at Reese News Lab with all the determination of one diving deeper into a fascinating abyss. With the first Pitch Day approaching on Wednesday, the data group tasked ourselves with answering the reigning questions: “How can we use accessible local data to provide a product or service that helps consumers make better decisions in their lives?” and, during bouts of doubt or confusion, “Where are we at this point in the project?”

As a business major with a marketing concentration, I enjoy this part of the process. I love to ask people, “What do you want that you don’t have? What do you need? And how can we provide that for you better than your available options?” We dedicated the first day entirely to working towards finding answers to such questions, brainstorming our way through one idea matrices after another until we faced a full wall of brightly colored sticky notes. Our ideas ranged from broad to far-fetched, from a Why Does it Stink app to a crime-report aggregation service for same-sex couples who want to start families.

The author, Li Zhang, pitches her idea. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

The author, Li Zhang, pitches her idea. Photo by Samantha Harrington.

By Tuesday afternoon, we had surrounded ourselves with potential avenues to explore, and yet our group was still unsatisfied with the results from a day and a half of brainstorming. Luckily, some guidance and an additional brainstorm session with John Clark and Ryan Thornburg helped us narrow down our choices by framing our ideas into a more interpersonal context. On a daily basis, they questioned, what are problems that people have that they may not even realize? Refocused, we were able to successfully pitch three ideas to the Lab on Wednesday.

Normally, I spur my mind into idea generation by doing a giant brain dump with lists or flowcharts, but exploring ideas with matrices pushed me to consider how constraints can breed creativity. When we set parameters for users, customers, and type of data, we brainstormed ideas with specificity rather than vagueness. I realized that if I wanted to create something with impact, if I really wanted to change the world, I had to break things down to the details–who we were creating a product or service for, and what exactly we were helping them accomplish.

On Friday, John advised us to think about our product in terms of value proposition. Like Apple, we were creating more than a functional product. We were trying to solve squishy issues–convenience, the satisfaction of winning, assurance or the feeling of safety. I realized that morning that we reached one of the core questions that help lead to successful products: What value are we giving, and to whom?

The point is not that we don’t know for sure where we’ll end up, nor to create a product that will revolutionize the globe in a year. The most valuable experience is in forging a path no one has yet tried to forge, creating and providing value to improve lives, if even in small, daily ways.


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