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#40: How to Find the Right Type of Side Projects to Work On
Tactical tips on the art and the practice of problem finding
I initially wrote this for my mentee, Amy. Decided it’s worth sharing to the public. There will be no audio recording for this one. I suspect there will be a part II to this at some point. Please enjoy!
Make it a habit to write about the topics you are interested in.
If you’re having a hard time deciding what those are, think about all the things you do on your own free time:
Articles you read
Videos you consume
Books you gravitate towards
Video game genres you like
Things you constantly talk about
Film topics you can’t stop talking about
It is hard to work on something you don’t necessarily care about. Much more difficult to allocate the necessary time and self-sacrifice without that initial interest. Are you passionate about a social cause? What kinds of companies are you mostly curious about? From healthcare to entertainment, there are many places where design and innovation is needed. List a couple of them and see what comes up. Sky is the limit.
When I took a Python Programming bootcamp last Fall, I knew that I had to work on a topic I’ve been pretty obsessive about: Modern Electric Vehicles. Learning python, as with most programming languages, wasn’t a walk in the park. Most especially for someone without a CS background like myself. What made all the difference in the world though was my persistent fascination with my chosen subject. I was infatuated, to say the least.
Looking back, the hours I’ve logged in doing coding and design (user interface, mostly) rarely felt like work. Because I’ve already been reading and keeping track of everything related to electric vehicles for close to roughly ~4-5 years now, turning it into a reality through a small software project seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me.
Python, as hard as it was to learn it, supplemented and empowered an already active curiosity. Perhaps without the latter, the experience would’ve been a completely different one. Want to read more about this project? Here are some articles I wrote about it: State of the EV: An Early Case Study and Four Short Lessons From Learning Python.
Find existing problems around those topics.
Once you are able to narrow down your selection, it is time to move on to the discovery phase. Do some investigation and find the problems in those areas you’ve selected. Don’t think about the solutions just yet or the future state of what those can be (i.e mobile app, responsive websites). Focus on uncovering the known and unknown problems attached to your topic of choice:
Does it actually exist?
Is it worthwhile to solve?
Who are the potential users?
Do I have access to some of them?
Is it simple enough to start with? (not too complex nor big in terms of scopes)
Can you replicate the problem? (is it a personal one, maybe?)
Please note: there’s no doubt that this skill (‘Problem Finding’) takes a lot of work and critical thinking to do well and waste as little time and resources on. The good news is that you already, most likely, have the initial investment: time, curiosity, the internet. All that is left is the practice and there is no shortcut to that.
The most innovative people in history have developed a lifetime of finding problems and opportunities in everything with human advancement in mind. This is not a new thing. If I have to take a guess, the best products of the future will be born out of these questions: ‘What sucks now? What could be better? What patterns of the past can we use to accurately predict the dinosaurs of the present? How can humans reach their full potential without compromising the planet and all that is in it?’
If all of that is far too ambitious for a side project, that’s ok. I would just start with this instead: ‘What seems acceptable to some but the opposite to me in terms of the value it currently brings to society? If I say it out loud, would I meet a lot of resistance? If I do it right, will it change people’s minds?’
Conduct an initial research on potential competitors.
There’s a high likelihood that you won’t be alone in pursuing those problems. That’s totally fine, in fact, in my opinion, that is a good thing. If you want to seek change and make it happen through design, you have to know your competitors. You have to find a way to somehow make your case study BETTER. Good news is that there's infinite access to resources out there to help you scout and investigate those companies, startups and people who are in the same mission as you. Here are my personal favorite haunting grounds:
Product Hunt - a platform where anyone can launch a product (software, hardware, media etc)
Kickstarter - also an equally fascinating, diverse company that makes crowdfunding a lot easier and manageable in the 21st century
Angel list - although, technically, this is a job site, it is unlike any other. If you look through the startups posted here, you’ll find a lot of ideas based on the problems they are actively solving.
The Google Cementery - site that tracks all the products that didnt make it from Google. Not an official Google site but good resource, nonetheless.
Gumroad - an underrated e-commerce platform that lets users sell all sorts of digital services— from books, courses, softwares etc.
And then, begin the work.
Whatever this means for you. Grab a laptop and write, or open up Visual Studio code and tinker, or start a white-boarding session with a partner or two. This is meant to be a tool-agnostic guide because it’s never just about what you do. It’s also about why you do what you do and who you are doing it for.
We are not meant to be strapped on a single path, or specialization. Creative problem solving via technology requires a multitude of skills and tools. This versatility is a huge asset to anyone who is in the business of both problem finding and problem solving. I encourage you to explore, go out of your way and do more with your hands and brains.
As I’ve said before, and I’ll repeat it again: I love this industry. Is there anything bigger and more worthwhile than the idea, the craft, the practice of designing the future?
Personal life aside, nothing excites me more. I mean it.
Books that are helping me develop this practice better:
Anything written by Seth Godin
Podcast episodes that did a great job tackling this. If you’ve been a reader before, you might see some familiar favorites:
Thank you once again for reading Working Title. You inspire me to keep going.
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