Hidden XY Problem

June 22, 2021

Even if you have never heard the name before, you are likely familiar with the XY problem:

The XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem. This leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and energy, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help.

As a consultant I have started to develop a reflex for recognizing XY problems, and I often encounter a variant, the hidden XY problem. It’s hidden because it does not present itself as a question, but rather as a fully rationalized objective. Here’s a real-life example:

A product and development team is working on their app. Each sprint, a new feature request lands in the backlog, and one requirement is always the same: “this feature must be available from the homepage”.

The team repeatedly delivers, and eventually there is hardly a task that isn’t doable from the homepage. It’s starting to feel bloated, and a designer starts asking, “Why?”. The conversation between the designer and the stakeholders goes something like this:

DESIGNER: “Why does this need to go on the homepage? Can we make a dedicated page for this feature instead?”

STAKEHOLDER: “No. Users want everything on the homepage so they don’t have to click around. They hate clicking around more than anything.”

Without knowing it, the team has stumbled into an XY problem. The assumptions about users have fully crystallized, so there is no obvious Y question that will lead us back to the real problem of X. Finding the way back to X means challenging the assumption, which is riskier than asking “what are you really trying to do?”

Eventually, a designer might conduct user research and find out why users want everything on one page: because page loads are terribly slow. Users have accepted slow as a given, and would rather wait 30 seconds once than 4 seconds for each page. The problem is compounded by the fact that the menu lacks organization, and nothing is where they expect it to be. As it turns out, users don’t mind navigating around if page loads take half a second, so the real issue here is poor performance on the back end.

A good way to develop the skill of recognizing hidden XY problems is to always question stakeholders when they make statements about their users. What is the evidence for their assumption? What’s the sample size of users they’ve evaluated to support their claim, and how recently have they reevaluated their assumption?