Peeling back to first principles

Starting from first principles is something we do a lot in our product and design process at Intercom. I was reminded of this after reading the final piece in an amazing, highly recommended, four part series about Elon Musk published on Wait But Why.

In almost every early stage design review, I ask the team to take me back to first principles. It only dawned on me recently that I’m unsure what prompted me to tell people to start from first principles, but I’m now pretty sure it was from reading about Elon Musk.

The concept, as I interpret and use it in product development, is pretty simple: when looking at a problem, don’t assume any starting point for a solution based on what you already know, but work hard to strip it back, removing all your existing biases and known constraints, until you can’t strip it back anymore. Until you are at a point where nothing can be deduced from what you’re left with. You’re back to first principles, and you can start to build back up a new and better solution.

A wonderful example from the article is that almost everyone told Musk he was insane to get into the space business, that rockets were insanely, prohibitively expensive, that has always been the way, and always will be the way. So Musk went back to first principles, stripping the problem back until he was left with the cost of the materials required to build a rocket. Which, turns out, was only 2% of the total cost. So 98% of the cost was in shaping those materials to build the rocket. A huge margin to design and build a better, cheaper way.

Peeling the onion

In thinking recently about working from first principles, it reminded me of an analogy I used to use when working as a Researcher at Google and training others to do field interviews. I used to tell people that doing qualitative research was like peeling an onion.

Imagine the real truth, the real answer to a question, was the centre of the onion. And to get to it when talking to someone, you had to continue your line of questioning, going deeper and deeper each time. The first question you ask only peels away the first layer. You have to keep going, keep asking “I understand, but why is that?”.

“And why is that?”
“And why is that?”
“And why is that?”

Until finally, you get to the core of the answer. The deepest human motivation, the real reason. This is where true understanding of a problem comes from, and is the source of many groundbreaking new ideas.

This also reminds me of a technique in IDEO’s famed Method Cards called “The 5 Whys“. Almost identical to the onion technique, simply keep asking “Why?”.

Building a Better Solution

It’s natural to assume you know why something is, because evolution made you that way. But you’re very likely wrong. Keep stripping things back until you can’t strip back anymore. Then build back up a better solution.

Main image: The launch and landing streak left by the first Space X Falcon 9 rocket which successfully landed after launching a payload into orbit. Photo credit: Space X.