Solve and Evolve

Design for Problem Solving

Take a moment to count the decisions you’ve made so far today. Most likely, you’ve chosen what to wear, what to have for breakfast, which route to take to work. Once at work, you took stock of pressing demands and made some decisions about which tasks to tackle first. If you’re a manager, you might have had to schedule and attend meetings, possibly negotiate with team members on a proposal, counsel some staff, prepare reports or presentations and you might have had to pitch an idea. All before lunch.

That’s a lot of problem solving right there. Your brain must feel fried.

I’ve talked about this a lot this year – The key organising principle in the brain is to minimize threat and maximise reward. This has implications for problem-solving because when we experience a problem to solve, it activates a lot of the same bits of the brain that process threats, which in turn impacts our capacity to think clearly and make good decisions. The threat response is mentally taxing and deadly to productivity. It also impairs analytic thinking and creative insight (which I’ll talk about a bit later).

Let me just debunk a myth quickly before I go into the detail – “The left brain is really realistic, analytical, practical, organized, and logical, and the right brain is so creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid, and poetic?”…

…No. Just no. Stop it. Please. Totally false.

Creativity and problem solving does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain. It involves all of it. There is no one location in the brain that makes decisions and solves problems, all four lobes are involved and so too are a lot of sub-regions.


The most basic definition is “A problem is any given situation that differs from a desired goal”. Go back a thousand years or so and this obviously included issues like finding food in harsh winters, remembering where you left your provisions, making decisions about which way to go, learning, repeating and varying all kinds of complex movements, and so on.

Problem solving has been crucial during the evolutionary process that created us the way we are. Solving problems is good. It makes us better. So we need to think really hard when we’re designing solutions about helping people solve problems.

I have a very very simple principle – Everything we design should ‘Make People Better’ because the brain is wired to solve & evolve.


First, consider that there are different types of problem solving. There is linear problem-solving, which includes problems that have only one solution and are usually often better solved analytically. An example of a linear problem might be balancing a budget.

In a goal-oriented situation more often than not the audience reproduces the response to the given problem from past experience. This is called reproductive thinking.

Complex problems, however, have more than one solution and are solved much better with a different kind of thinking. They require non-conscious thinking. These types of problems are what we refer to as Insight Problems.

Complex problems are nonlinear vs. linear and are different in that they don’t have obvious solutions or sequential steps to follow. Complex problems require something new and different to achieve the goal, prior learning is of little help here. Such productive thinking involves insight. These types of problems require creativity – the ability to combine information in a whole new way.

The entire problem solving process, complex or simple – from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification – consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions.


Complex problems need creative solutions that come to us in the form of insights.

When we have an insight, what is not obvious becomes obvious to us. The proverbial a-ha moment. They involve non-conscious processing and are at the heart of innovation. Insight comes to us suddenly and when we are not putting our focus on the problem. This is why you may have noticed that some of your biggest moments of a-ha have arrived in the middle of the night, in the shower, while cooking dinner, or when you were driving. Being able to reinterpret information in a different way and pull together remotely linked ideas to create a novel solution to long standing problems is not something our conscious brain, or prefrontal cortex, is particularly good at – In fact, it can actually hinder our ability to hear insights, those quiet signals our non-conscious brain sends to us when we make new connections that lead to big ideas.

We need to start designing solutions for some of lifes big problems (like financial planning), that tap into the power of your non-conscious brain. Setting people a problem or challenge to solve and then actually asking them to walk away from it feels counter-intuitive, but it’s a genuine neurological recipe for success – “We’ve told you the problem, now shut the app, go away and do something else & come back tomorrow”.


High levels of anxiety and fear create a lot of noise in the brain and inhibit our ability to have and hear insights. Insights are the result of a very small number of distantly associated brain cells talking to each other. To compare, deciding what to eat for breakfast involves millions of brain cells having a conversation with each other. An insight only involves a few thousands neurons talking to each other. This is why we have them when our brains are quiet, and activity level is low.

Here’s an insight for you to consider; Design solutions that keep the audience in a positive mood because in turn that decreases anxiety and drops noise levels to low.

I call it my ‘Smile Test‘ – Does a product make me smile? If it does then my brain is going to be on low-anxiety mode and therefore I’m primed to start solving problems much much better.

Another way of reducing anxiety is by helping the audience to structure the task you’re giving them better. If you don’t already prioritise prioritising, this simple function may do wonders for freeing up the prefrontal cortex of our audience and making your product stickier.

Are you trying to get your audience to focus on too many things at once? Try to focus their attention on one thing at a time. If possible, get things out of their head by finding ways of recording it somewhere else. Keep one place for recording ideas and one place for to-do lists or diary actions. By doing this, it allows your prefrontal cortex a ‘rest’, allowing it to focus on doing the job of problem solving properly.


To overcome an impasse we have to experience a shift in perspective – a break in our mental set. It is our natural tendency to project interpretations onto situations based on our past experiences. Unfortunately, this hinders our ability to see a different perspective that is often needed to move change forward.

One of the biggest obstacles to breaking a mental set is analytic thinking, also known as rational thinking. To solve a problem with insight and creativity, we have to stop trying so hard. Focusing on the problem and putting effort into finding the solution does not create the mental state conducive to having an insight.

Engaging in analysis with our rational brain constrains our ability to creatively solve an insight problem by further cementing a particular perspective or mental set. This often disrupts the ability to see different perspectives. Consider the discovery of the Postit note. The glue that didn’t stick so well and seemed to have no value at all was considered a problem until someone broke their mental set and realized that a glue that didn’t stick that well could actually be a good thing.

Try designing solutions that describe a problem to be solved using metaphors or parallels. For example, stop talking about financial problem solving using money – create a solution that uses a metaphor because it will switch the fixation on the actual problem, to one that’s more creative.


Sometimes if we want to experience creative solutions to long standing problems, we have to step back so that we can see the bigger picture. Studies show that people are more able to solve problems if they visualize or imagine themselves in the future solving their problem. This promotes a form of stepping back which produces more creative ideas.

Encourage the audience to take a break, go for a quick walk. While this may be seen as eating into the experience time, we know the process of stopping to think about a problem can quieten the brain allowing for an insight you may not have otherwise have.

In addition, research tells us that it is much easier to take a positive perspective on a challenging situation when we are in a good mood. Negative moods are associated with a narrow focus, sometimes referred to as tunnel vision. When faced with a complex problem, allow your brain to gain some distance from the problem and notice how many more creative ideas bubble up to the surface. Consider starting your problem solving tool by asking people what mood they’re in – If the mood is specified as gloomy then suggest they come back and try to solve the problem at another time.


In all humans there is a dominant set of behaviours in situations requiring relatively novel means of attaining goals and problem solving involves. It involves a process that we call “Restructuring”. You need to design for the Restructuring process and two main questions have to be considered:

How is a problem represented in a person’s mind?

How does solving this problem involve a reorganisation or restructuring of this representation?

I talked about a similar thing in my last post ‘Designing Fear’. You have to help a user reframe a problem, fear or challenge in order to overcome it.


It’s an exciting time for the neuroscience of problem solving, as long as you ditch outdated notions of how creativity works. This requires embracing the messiness of the creative process and the dynamic brain activations and collaborations among many different brains that make it all possible.

If you want to follow up on some of these points then very thoughtful cognitive neuroscientists such as Anna Abraham, Mark Beeman, Adam Bristol, Kalina Christoff, Andreas Fink, Jeremy Gray, Adam Green, Rex Jung, John Kounios, Hikaru Takeuchi, Oshin Vartanian, Darya Zabelina and others are on the forefront of investigating what actually happens in the brain during the problem solving process. And their findings are overturning conventional and overly simplistic notions surrounding the neuroscience of creativity.

For more on the latest findings in the emerging neuroscience of creativity, I highly recommend the recent book “Neuroscience of Creativity,” edited by Oshin Vartanian, Adam S. Bristol, and James C. Kaufman.

I’m really grateful for the following amazing sources & thinking that I mashed together with my own thoughts to create this piece:




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