The XY Problem

From Wikipedia:

The XY problem is a communication problem encountered in help desk and similar situations in which the real issue (“X”) of the person asking for help is obscured, because instead of asking directly about issue X, they ask how to solve a secondary issue (“Y”) which they believe will allow them to resolve issue X. However, resolving issue Y often does not resolve issue X, or is a poor way to resolve it, and the obscuring of the real issue and the introduction of the potentially strange secondary issue can lead to the person trying to help having unnecessary difficulties in communication and offering poor solutions.

I first learned that this phenomenon had a name while I was listening to a recent episode of Roderick on the Line. The hosts were reflecting on an experience of getting advice from a friend:

I wish you had told me what it was you actually want to accomplish instead of guessing the methodology for doing something based on your reckon about what you needed to do.

As a design professional I encounter this problem on a near-daily basis. People come to you with a preconceived notion of your role and ask you to perform a preconceived function without discussing their ultimate goal. Skipping over important context and stopping short of the vision for success is omitting the two most-important details every creative project needs.

A designer can do their best work when given a starting point (a problem), an end point (a desired outcome)—and the freedom to figure out the best path between them.

Next time you’re kicking off a creative project—big or small—start by making sure everyone involved understands what it is you’re actually trying to accomplish.