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“Any problem can be helped with a picture.” (Dan Roam)
VIS v1 cats1 The back of the napkin – solving problems with pictures

In his must-read book The Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam explains that all humans are naturally built to solve problems visually. Just imagine trying to assemble affordable Swedish modular furniture based on a narrative! Images make complex ideas easier to absorb and communicate, and best of all, facilitate new insights and inventions. In fact, many great ideas have started off as half-assed sketches on beer mats and napkins (to be fair, so have some not-so-great ideas). Researchers, management consultants and big corporations use visual problem solving all the time, and there’s no reason it can’t be applied to any field!

Let’s look at some examples where visualization can help attack a problem.

1)     A classic case of where this could be useful is if you’re looking for bottlenecks in a complicated process. If you try to figure out every single step and how they relate to each other in your head, you’ll probably go crazy, but a simple flowchart will immediately highlight problem areas. This is one of the key benefits of visualization, it simplifies complex issues onto a manageable level.
Flowchart v31 The back of the napkin – solving problems with pictures

2)     Sometimes visualizing a problem is really just a way of making the analysis more meticulous. Let’s take an example of a restaurant that’s trying to figure out why it keeps getting crappy reviews online. The manager wants to understand what exactly is going wrong, so he starts by jotting down the major components of the customer experience. Next, he figures out what those components consist of, and then sees if there’s any room for improvement within them. It’s simple, but allows for detailed analysis without losing sight of the big picture.
Restaurant v2 The back of the napkin – solving problems with pictures

3)     At other times, visualization just lets you to look at simple data from a different perspective, hopefully sparking new avenues of thought. Say you want to figure out what your dream job is, then a simple Venn-diagram can already give you some interesting insights by forcing you to think outside your usual avenues of thought.
Venn v2 The back of the napkin – solving problems with pictures

If you want to apply this process of visual problem-solving to your own work, try following these simple steps:

  • First of all, stay away from your computer! If you want to think outside the box, you have to take a step back from the data. Use paper instead or a flipchart if possible, but resist the temptation to sniff those markers until you’re done!
  • Think about what kind of problem you are working with and shape your visualization method accordingly. For example, if the problem deals with people, would mapping out their relationships help? If the problem deals with multiple locations, would transposing the data onto a map make it easier to process? If the problem is related to timing, consider creating a flowchart to see the order in which things occur. If you don’t understand how a machine works, draw it and figure out exactly what happens where.
  • Draw some quick and dirty charts/images (not “dirty” as in adult, but rather as in don’t worry about how they look at this stage) to get some alternative viewpoints into the problem. No need to get it right the first time, just keep drawing! This is what big waste paper baskets are for!
  • If you find an image that works, show it to other people and see what they think.
  • Refine the best charts with better graphics and more precise data in case you want to present them later.

Now, if you’ll excuse us, it’s time to decipher this beer mat which says “Solution to global warming” and has a doodle of a camel break-dancing. Genious!

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