How to Escape from a Rabbit Hole: Problem Solving in Product Design

Porticos Team Brainstorming a Product Design Challenge

Lewis Joyce loves solving problems. That’s why he became an engineer. And according to him, there’s a similar tendency in all the engineers at Porticos.

But occasionally, even the most experienced problem-solver gets stuck. “When you’re deep into a project,” says Lewis, “it’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole.”

Thankfully when an a Porticos engineer gets stuck on a problem, well… it’s not a problem.

Porticos has developed a culture of team problem solving, where engineers regularly join forces in the name of developing a solid product. Here is a peek at how Porticos jumps into action when a team member ends up in a rabbit hole.

Gather creative minds.

At Porticos, it’s typical to gather between 4 and 8 people to brainstorm solutions to particularly tough problems. Lewis describes this as a mix of people with expertise on the problem and people with totally fresh perspectives. But the whole group, he emphasizes, should be people who can “think outside the box.”

Porticos Team Brainstorming a Product Design Challenge
Porticos CTO Kevin Carpenter (left) and Director of Engineering (center) brainstorming with team members.

Define the problem, the product, and the requirements.

Before they can brainstorm solutions, the team needs to understand what they’re working with. The engineer who called the meeting will kick it off by laying the groundwork: they explain the evolution of the product to this point, the ideal outcome for the product, how it will be used, details about the environment the product will live in, and–finally–the problem that has them stumped.

Roll up your sleeves and dig in.

Once the whole team understands the problem and the big-picture vision for the product, the brainstorming begins. Lewis explains, “It’s an open discussion. We draw on the whiteboard, sketch our ideas, pass ideas back and forth, and build on each other’s ideas.”

From this spirited discussion comes several ideas. But those ideas don’t leave the room quite yet!

Think like your own worst critic.

Before an idea can be considered a possible solution to the problem at hand, it first has to stand up to a room full of critics. Because Porticos has a culture of team problem solving, it also has a culture of good-natured criticism. “We all shoot holes in each others’ ideas,” Lewis laughs. “That way, we make sure everything that comes out of that meeting is solid.”

Running in the back of everyone’s mind during these meetings is the Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA). This system of analysis asks questions such as, “how might this product be used or misused? What environment must it function in? How could it fail in its use or environment?” and then quantifies the failure mode into a numerical score based on the severity of the failure, how likely it is to occur, and how likely that failure mode is to be detected. Though the FMEA process isn’t actually used during brainstorming meetings, the engineers all have experience with it, and it shapes how they “shoot holes” in ideas and anticipate how a solution might fail.

Back to the drawing board

A typical problem-solving meeting yields one or two possible solutions. From there, engineers add detail within the CAD software, refine the idea, and do a rough implementation to see if the solution holds real possibility. A successful test run leads to a test on a prototype and, eventually, a solution.

Keep it up until it’s right.

Of course, some solutions come more easily than others! Porticos is dedicated to the cycle of brainstorming and testing until the solution is just right.

And thanks to a culture of team problem-solving, no one is ever stuck down a rabbit hole for long.