An important principle in designing anything is trying to understand what the function and purpose are for something, and how these are different.
What is it that someone is trying to do? This is the function.
What is someone trying to achieve? This is the purpose.
A simple example,
Function = I want to make some tea
Purpose = I need hot water, I need a tea bag and I need a container for two things to come together.
“A kettle” may seem the obvious answer to this riddle. Yet, there are myriad ways in which the purpose can be met without using a kettle.
[Example] A cup which on contact with water starts a chemical reaction which heats the water.
[Example] Boiling water and a tea bag in a cooking pot.
The question is: Are there new ways of satisfying the purpose, which work better than a kettle and a cup?
Stating the problem in this way allows designers to think about a problem conceptually and allows them to think critically about current conventions and while allowing them to see the atomic elements of the problem.
The purpose can also be broken down into sub-purposes, giving us a more granular way to look at a problem.
Thinking about how purpose can be broken down also allows you to think about the best possible outcomes for each given purpose.
The best outcomes for a given purpose or sub-purpose can also be validation tools that allow you to:
- measure the success of a design concept
- have a uniform way of comparing your design idea against other existing design solutions.
If your design solution allows for a much better outcome to a purpose, this is the starting point of creating a design which really innovates and does not just incrementally iterate on a problem space.
An excellent book which uses similar principles is “What Customers Want: Using Outcome-Driven Innovation to Create Breakthrough Products and Services” by Anthony Ulwick. This book concentrates on product design, but I think this process and way of thinking can be applied to products which are much more conceptual, as well as in identifying whole new markets of opportunity for innovation.