Eigenquestions: The Art of Framing Problems
When Coda was founded, we found ourselves faced with a number of tricky choices. From years of working together previously at YouTube,
(our founding PM) and I had developed a bit of a shorthand for how to "frame" problems. Over the years, we've refined and formalized the techniques, and we teach these skills as part of onboarding new employees at Coda. This document is a handbook of these techniques.
The power of a good frame
Before we get to the "how to" portion of this doc, let's start with a fun (and instructive) story.
When I joined YouTube in 2008, one of the key dilemmas facing the company was the "link out" question. YouTube was already the #2 search engine in the world (#1 was our parent employer ーGoogle), and we received a lot of search traffic for content that didn't exist on YouTube. For example, a trending query at the time was for the show Modern Family, for which our results were quite poor.
So the question was: if a user searches for something, and we knew that we didn't have the best result, should we "link out" to a third-party website?
The company was deeply divided. On one side, most of the product and engineering team aligned on the view that we should "link out" ー after all, it seemed to be serving what the user was asking for. On the other hand, much of the business side of the company aligned against this view ー arguing that it was difficult to license content natively if we sent traffic away from the site. This framing was clearly deadlocked, and I had a suspicion that another framing might help, so I spent some time thinking about alternate frames.
At an offsite to resolve the debate once and for all, I presented an alternate framing to break the standstill. Instead of thinking of this question as "link out" vs don't, what if we thought about this as the choice between consistency and comprehensiveness?
Through this lens, we looked across industries for examples. In online shopping, we saw an intense battle between Google Product Search (née Froogle) and Amazon. Most philosophical arguments suggest that Google Product Search would naturally win this battle ー after all, the catalog was a full superset of Amazon. And yet, consumers seemed to pick Amazon at a much higher rate. When asked, consumers said that they picked Amazon because of the reliable experience ー not only did products deliver fast and on time, but the model for returns was clear, reviews always followed the same format, etc. We labeled this as a market where consistency was more important than comprehensiveness.
Even with this new frame, we had a vivid debate: would the online video market be one that rewarded consistency or comprehensiveness? After much discussion, we settled it: consistency was more important than comprehensiveness. And this led to a decision:
We would not link outside of YouTube for search results.
And the story doesn't end there. Not linking outside of YouTube became one of our core principles and quickly framed a set of other difficult decisions. For example, we removed the ability for creators to opt content out of different devices and removed all third-party embed players.
The most notable example of a difficult choice driven from this principle was our decision to
app from Apple. For years the Apple team had owned our iOS experience and had struggled to keep up with our development pace. Not only were key features missing, these gaps triggered restrictions such that much of the YouTube catalog did not play on iOS devices at all, which led to an inconsistent experience. We sacrificed default distribution on the most popular mobile operating system because we had a clear principle: Consistency over comprehensiveness.
Aside from being an interesting snapshot from the internet historical archives, this story demonstrates an important learning: the power of a good frame — a critical success factor for teams and an important skill to master.
By reframing the question as "consistency vs comprehensiveness," we made a clear decision and created a frame for a series of hard decisions down the line.
What is framing, and why does it matter?
Framing is the process of breaking down a problem into a set of choices, trade offs, and options that enable a team to make a call and move forward.
At Coda, framing
is an important skillーone we look for in candidates and teach to new employees. When done well, framing can steer the company, product, and team through tricky situations. When done poorly, we can feel stuck, frustrated, and like we're debating for an unnecessarily long period of time or are zeroed in on the minutiae of a decision.
A few benefits of good framing are:
Framing enables a shared, well understood sense of the problem. Even on its own, establishing a common language can facilitate better conversations and move teams forward.
(AKA finding the "eigenquestion")
One of the critical disciplines of framing is to "find the right question." Too often debates start with "solutions," before we determine if we're asking the right questions, in the right order. We'll discuss the term "eigenquestion" in a bit, but good framing of problems often requires rotating perspective. As we saw in the YouTube example, changing the question may be the best course for illuminating a path forward.
: Great decisions start with a clear set of options, as hard problems are rarely as simple as a "yes/no" on a single option. The book
is a good resource full of data and stories of how teams that consider options make better decisions.
: For most people, their ability to participate in a debate starts with feeling heard. Good frames give a spine to the variety of options and opinions suggested by others. Once they are all in place, people can let go of their initial opinion, and objectively discuss the alternatives.
Faster decisions that stick
: A common complaint of structured decision making is that it can be time consumingーwhy bother constructing alternatives if one of them is already obvious? To be clear, this toolkit should not be used on every decision. On the flipside, when faced with a difficult decision, I prefer to evaluate the process based on a different type of speed. The worst decisions in these cases are ones that are arrived at quickly, but are just as quickly reversed, and thus the apparent speed turns into an illusion. Good framing helps produce "decisions that stick."
3 techniques for expert framing
Who can frame? Anybody! But just like any skill set, practice makes perfect. A great frame can come from a designer, PM, engineer, customer champion, sales person, etc. These are three techniques that we've found critical in learning to be a world-class framer. A brief summary is included below, with a separate page dedicated to each topic.
Framing often starts with asking the right question. In many cases, a decision can look like it has ten related questions, and if asked in the wrong order, they can seem intractable. Often the best path through a decision is to pick the right question to prioritize and start with.
"Eigenquestion" is a made-up-word that borrows from the linear algebra concept of
(mathematically: represents the "most discriminating vector in a multidimensional space"). I have a mathematics background so this term felt like a natural choice to me, but rest assured, it’s just a borrowed name and remembering/understanding the math is unimportant to understanding the concept.
For a simplistic definition, the eigenquestion is the question where, if answered, it likely answers the subsequent questions as well. Great framing starts by searching for the most discriminating question of a set — the eigenquestion.
This section of the doc has a deeper discussion:
Framing is both a right brained and a left brained activity. The left brain helps with analysis, logic, and organization of a problem while the right brain aides in synthesis, imagination, the ability to generate options, and the most effective way to communicate those options to others.
Over the years, Matt and I developed a shorthand for our framing diagrams with a consistent pattern and coloring system. Head over to
to learn more.
Framing is not meant to be a solitary process — great ideas can come from anywhere. We hire teams and surround ourselves with interesting and diverse colleagues because we value their perspectives. Great framers find ways to bring out and incorporate these perspectives.
It's also easier to enroll in a decision when you understand the frame. And human nature compels us to question alternatives in tough decisions. By clearly capturing the right group of choices in a simple frame, collaborators can more easily buy-in to the choice.
This section of the doc explores different techniques for productively involving your teammates in the framing process:
The final section of this doc has a running list of helpful tips for being an expert framer:
It is my view that being a great framer is a magical ability for just about any role, and is also a completely learnable skill. Hopefully you find this doc helpful in becoming an expert framer!
P.S. To see other docs from Shishir, check out
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