Jonathan Weaver, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Detroit Mercy, shares an exercise he uses to help engineering students recognize opportunity and identify problems.

Brainstorming—a freewheeling, uninhibited type of group discussion to generate ideas—is one way to solve a known or assumed problem.
Sometimes we spend a lot of time solving problems that, even if solved—don’t generate significant value to the customer. One way to avoid this failure mode is to first focus on the problem/opportunity itself to make sure that, if solved, it will alleviate a real pain for the customer.
“The idea behind painstorming is instead of just brainstorming for solutions to some problem, you back up a step and look for significant pain or opportunity in the market that you’re trying to address,” said Jonathan Weaver, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Detroit Mercy. “Engineers tend to be pretty good at solving problems, but not nearly as good at opportunity recognition and identifying problems that need to be solved in the first place.”
In painstorming, students are asked to generate problem statements based on actual customers’ pains and frustrations before proceeding to develop potential concepts addressing those opportunities.
Weaver teaches this technique in his product development, innovation, and design and creativity classes as well as industry workshops. He sees an opportunity for students to work on designing the problem rather than just the solution to problems given to them.
“Products perceived to be innovative that have done well in marketplace can be traced back to the pain they address,” he said.
Jonathan Weaver’s Painstorming Exercise
1) Provide students with examples of innovative products that address customer pains.

2) Prime students with observation skills.

  • Weaver shows his students a video that demonstrates the power of observation and the tendency for people to only notice what they are focusing on: (study by cognitive psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris).
  • In this video, how many passes did you count? Did you see the gorilla?

3) Help students understand the customer.

  • Weaver leads a class exercise with IDEO methods cards, which help researchers, designers and engineers develop diverse ways to understand the people for whom they are designing:

4) Assign each student the task of observing human pains for a week.

  • Go out into the world to listen for and observe frustration.
  • Take a 5-10 minute video of a people performing everyday tasks (without getting in trouble).
  • Watch the resulting video multiple times, and in different ways (with no audio, with someone else, backwards, etc.).
  • Write down potential opportunities where an innovative solution may generate value.
  • Also note sub-optimal ways that people perform tasks without even noticing that the approach is sub-optimal (usually because that’s the way it’s been done for a long time—even though conditions and technology may have changed).

5) Ask each student to bring his or her video to class to collect other students’ observations.

  • Students watch the collection of videos together and identify additional needs or opportunities that the student who made the video may have missed.

6) Grade students on how many needs or opportunities they identified in their own video, and how many needs or opportunities they identified in others’ videos that the owner missed.
7) Use these ideas as starting points for students to state potential problem statements before proceeding to generate a wide array of concepts that address those problem statements.

Weaver cited several examples of pains students observed: inefficient ways people loaded and secured bicycles, canoes and kayaks to their car trailers; student dorm room problems such as one alarm clock waking up both roommates; and different ways people spread fertilizer or weed killer on their lawns.
One student took a video of a man raking leaves. Problems he observed included sub-optimal ergonomics of the rake, wind interference and inefficiency of leaf collection bags. While Weaver’s class watched the student’s video, another student noticed that the end of the man’s roof drainage pipe protruded into his driveway several feet, and as a result was crushed from being run over by his car. Other students followed this train of thought and began discussing the man’s clogged gutters and other pain points unrelated to the apparent theme of the video.
“So the discussion that was originally about leaves in a yard turned into downspouts and water management,” Weaver said. “To get students to see this when the obvious focus was on the person cleaning up leaves was exactly the objective I was trying to get at.”
Download the painstorming presentation Weaver uses in his classes with audio showing how he presents it here
Weaver’s website also features a collection of Keen Technical Entrepreneurship Case Studies, which are intended to be used in engineering programs to enhance student understanding of how technical concepts can be developed into new businesses:
Also, while brainstorming has its place, Weaver believes that a variety of concept generation tools can greatly expand a team’s (or individual’s) capability to thoroughly address the design space before committing to a particular concept. Slides on many of these ideating techniques are available at (under the Weaver’s Notes heading).

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