From Problem Solving

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Why we need mental models in life

I was reading the book Doing Data Science this morning. There was a small section about probability distribution where I came across the picture in the banner. The purpose of the picture, the author wrote “to remind that they only have names because someone observed them enough times to think they deserved names.” Then she briefly explained how people observed data generated from natural processes, noticed the recurring patterns and built mathematical model to represent the data.

My article had nothing to do with data science or statistics. What I wanted to say was the author reminded me something that I never thought about models. Models are not golden laws that come out of thin air. They are there because of our attempts to understand the nature of reality. They act as lens of visions and skeletons of  thinkings. Without models we can’t connect the dots in the chaos.

Learning the models is important when you start to study a new field

Before I started my digital marketing career in 2012, I was a product manager. The sudden change was a strike to me. Things that I had learnt about building product didn’t help me to sell the products. I felt disoriented and were easily carried away by the chaos of online information. I literally read a blogpost of top 50 online marketing tactics and tried out them one by one:  SEO, PPC, social network, viral video, user community, newsletter, etc. Months passed, but nothing happened, except that I was mentally and physically drained out by all the activities.


A few more months passed, I started to get good at some tactics, but I still didn’t know why I was doing them, especially I couldn’t connect them together to achieve my goal. This condition didn’t get any better until one day I came across this picture: the marketing funnel model, and suddenly everything became clear. I realised how I could align my activities with different stages of the model, and what I could do to make the funnel wider. Later I learnt that there were many digital marketing models out there and the funnel model had its limitation. But the way that this simple model helped me demonstrated the importance of having a model. No model is absolutely right. A model, even though it’s limited, can help us to see patterns in chaos, and when we see patterns, we know where to put the effort.

Companies can also use models to help people align their visions and make decisions

A company’s value statement pays this role. A successful value statement should be able to help employees make decisions, and help clients understand why certain decisions were made. I used to work in a company, whose value was “Simple and reliable”, which I found very practical in guiding my everyday work. Because it told us that the company cherishes simplicity against complexity, and encourages us to trust each other. We worked on making the product, the process and the relationship simple and reliable. It did a great job to help us cut abundant features and useless meetings.

I took this easiness for granted until I joined another company, whose value was “Happiness, sharing and rewarding”.  I could say without  hesitation the statement is right, but I didn’t know what I could do with it. I could’t get things done by saying “that makes me happy”, or decided to cancel a campaign by saying “that’s against sharing”.  The value statement was great but completely useless to guide everyday work.

I’m not judging the right or wrong of these values . I meant a successful value statement should work as a model: telling how things work in the company so people can align visions and make decisions more easily.

Another thing to remember is that a model is just one way to interpret facts, a facade of the reality

You need to have lots of them from multiple disciplines to understand the world better. As Charlie Munger’s warning about having only one or two models: the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your model, or at least you’ll think it does. To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

This happens all the time to me, usually when I meet a new theory from a book. After reading Lean Start Up, I found the idea of MVP is genius. I started to spot MVPs everywhere, and many things that I could test on. I tested the lean way on lots of things: marketing, analysis, relationships, even cooking. The enthusiasm went out control until I realised the MVP model has its limitation and it isn’t always applicable to the other fields. Although testing the boundary of a model has its positive aspect, it can be dangerous if you don’t know many other models, in which case you are just holding a hammer and looking for nails.

No model is absolutely right. Each model can be genius solution in certain context, but completely useless in another context. To make models useful you need to know them well and practice using them a lot. My advice? Have a curious heart. Learn different models from multiple disciplines. Practice them and test their boundaries. Keep an open mind and accept that odds can happen.


A reflection on democratisation of expertise, collective wisdom and problem solving

Yesterday I was helping a friend to set up an online teaching system with WordPress. Just as each time I used WordPress, at first, I was amazed by how I could set up almost anything without touching a single line of code. After the earlier sweet moment of setting up the skeleton, the bitter part came – the system and plugins never work in the exact way that you want. There were tons of hacks to do and even more ways of doing it. Guides and tricks that I could find on the internet were countless. But the real difficulty was I didn’t know what problem I had and which solution would work for my situation. After a long day tweaking the system, I finally achieved a suboptimal work. With a disgruntled heart, I swore, as I did the last time and the time before the last time, that I would never ever use WordPress again.

It’s amazing how the internet has inflated people’s abilities and blurred the boundary between experts and common people.  Secret recipes used to be reserved for chefs or grandmas. Home appliance repair used to be reserved for mechanical technicians. Trip planning used to be reserved for travel agencies. Selling used to be reserved for merchants. Accountancy used to be reserved for accountants. Website development used to be reserved for developers.

But today, with the help of the internet, we can somehow take over part of these jobs by ourselves. We don’t even need to keep the knowledge in our own head. As long as the knowledge is somewhere on the internet, we can always retrieve it anytime with a search engine.

The third type of people emerges – amateurs. Amateurs are self-taught “expert” on a specific subject. They often can’t completely understand or handle the subject from zero. But they can somehow produce a suboptimal solution by hacks and tweaks, as I did for my friend’s website. You find more and more self-taught designers, developers, marketers, accountant, nutritionist, stylist, travel adviser, body trainer, copywriter, etc.

Many application products target amateurs too. WordPress, for example, helps amateur bloggers and webmasters to build up a website by themselves. Email service such as Mailchimp helps you to build up you own campaigns without  a whole marketing force. Web analytic systems such as Google Analytics helps you to understand your web visitors’ behaviour without an expert analyst. Accounting applications such as Freshbooks helps to manage financial resources of a small business without a professional accountant.

These products usually provide a quick fix to the target problem, but it never works in the exact way that you want. They also tend to become over complex to comply with users in different situations. To tune the product to fit your specific situation, you’d spent days tweaking the product. User communities, open forums, and blogs are made for amateurs to share the experience and help out each other.

Although there is rich information out there. Everyone who has tried to tune a system will agree with me that  finding your solution in there is almost impossible.

First, the information out there is pure chaos

By nature, user generated information is heterogeneous. Authors have different levels of knowledge and writing abilities. You never know to whom you should trust.

The information is highly fragmented. It usually starts with a question from a user in the forum. Then the question is discussed among several users. With a little luck, the problem is solved. Most of the time the discussion finishes with no solution. Sometimes the thread is linked to another discussion in another forum. And sometimes the discussion is interrupted by another asker and get completely off the subject.

The information is without context. We are good at describing the problem itself, but we rarely give enough attention to its context. Partly because we are lazy, and partly because we don’t know which context is relevant. Take WordPress for example, if a plugin doesn’t work out, the reason might lie in configurations of WordPress system, default settings of your host, compatibility problems with the theme or other plugins that you have installed, etc. But as we don’t know what our problem is, or what potential problems there could be, all we can ask is “This plugin doesn’t work for me”. Solutions to questions without context are rarely helpful for another person.

The information lacks feedback. People have little commitment to forum discussions. They may ask a question and never come back for the solution; they may find the advice helpful but never mind to express their gratitude; they may figure out the solution by themselves but forget to share it with the community.

Second, amateurs don’t always understand where the problem is

Unlike experts, amateurs, without a ground understanding of how the system works, usually can’t identify the problem by themselves. When they search for information online, they are actually searching for potential problems and solutions at the same time.

The information chaos doesn’t do them any favor. They’d browse through a large quantity of information, take the time to try and rule out different possibilities.

Third, search engines aren’t the best tool to do the job

Solving problem is not about relevance. It’s about helping users to understand their situations and make a choice. Search engines do a great job retrieving relevant articles based on user queries. But in a situation that people don’t understand what the problem is and can’t make up an effective query, search engines are just retrieving all the possibilities in pure mess.

Linear structure is not an efficient way to solve ambiguous problems either. Search results are mostly organised in a linear order, with the most “relevant” result on the top. Again, when the problem is not clearly defined and hundreds of results out there are just in pure mess. Going through one result to another down the list is the least effective way to find the solution. It’s frustrating to read a long article only to discover it is talking about a situation which I’ve ruled out earlier.  A tree structure or case-based result page, which provide a certain way to group results into clusters and rule out irrelevant results in mass,  might be more helpful.

With the democratisation of expertise, people will rely more on the collective wisdom for problem-solving. There is definitely some progress to do about how we share and make use of the collective knowledge in online communities. Systems are needed to help people process and represent the huge amount information in a more interpretable way.