A few years ago, a bright-eyed entrepreneur came to me with an idea for a new app to help people accomplish their goals by saving more money. Saving enough money is a big problem in the US, so I took the meeting. That’s when it got weird.

They wanted people to recommend stores and restaurants which were offering coupons, then split the savings between the person who recommended the store and the person who went there. Nobody actually received money. Instead, users earned credits that could be redeemed for discounts at other stores in the system. 

The entrepreneur thought stores would want to participate because people would come in to use the credits they earned, and people would participate to earn credits for use in these stores. At no point did the business model actually address the core problem: putting money in savings! It was a confusing and convoluted business model with absolutely no market validation. When I suggested they go talk to people about the pains and gains of saving money, they scoffed and said, “This will work, I just know it!” Three years later, that entrepreneur hasn’t built anything and is still looking for funding. 

History is littered with entrepreneurs whose businesses failed because they pursued the wrong solution even when the evidence and their customers pointed them in a different direction.

You have to stay focused on the problem because the solution may be something you can’t quite see yet or never expected in the first place. You have to be willing to go where the evidence leads you and listen to what customers tell you, even if they’re ripping your “perfect” solution to shreds.

When I tell business owners this, they’ll often come back with the famous Steve Jobs line: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

What they don’t realize is that when you look at the context of that quote, yes, Jobs was talking about the iPod, but he was really talking about solving a problem. He didn’t see that people wanted a white block with a spinning wheel for the controls. He saw people wanted an easier way to play music. Jobs and the team at Apple validated the problem and then built a product to solve it. He exemplified the idea of falling in love with the problem, not the solution.

Of course, we all know what a success the iPod and then the iPhone, after it, have been. These products essentially reshaped the music, telephony, and personal computing industries for good.

Human-centered design wins again.