Solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?

Reversible button-down shirt

Several years ago I found a reversible shirt on a sale rack. For adults. Red stripes on the inside, blue on the out, or the other way around. I was fascinated by it. I had a reversible windbreaker when I was seven years old; I don’t think I had ever seen or heard of reversible clothing for adults. So of course I had to have it. It turned out to be a conversation piece whenever I wore it. “Hey! Check out my reversible shirt! Yeah, reversible! Look at what they did with the buttons!”

I called it a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. I wondered who needs a reversible shirt and why, other than someone begging for attention by asking everyone to check out his reversible shirt. What problem does it solve? At the markdown price it was reasonable, but at the original price a person could have bought two shirts of similar quality, that could last twice as long before laundering, that didn’t, you know, look like a reversible shirt. I figured it was done for reasons of fashion, but I must have blinked and missed the reversible shirt trend. It was on the sale rack for one reason or another.

Honda CX650 TurboIn 1983 Honda solved a problem that didn’t exist by turbocharging their CX650 twin motorcycle. They wanted to get the power of a standard four-cylinder 1000cc bike in a lighter package. What they got was an extremely complex, expensive machine that was hard to keep cool, didn’t save much weight, and whose boosted power delivery was uneven and unpleasant for many riders. Buyers apparently had no problem with standard four-cylinder liter bikes and continued to buy them in droves. Honda built only 1,777 CX650 Turbos.

Both of these things are great achievements! Nothing wrong with either of them (unless ROI is a concern, and of course it’s never not a concern). I’m sure they were fun to make and useful at least as styling or engineering exercises or both. Fail, learn, move forward. But I wonder if the designers themselves understood what problems they were solving.

Stapler tape dispenser comboThis one struck me as different, though. I saw one of these at Goodwill a while back. I cannot imagine the task that is made so much easier by having a combined tape dispenser and stapler in a single package, but I believe it exists. Someone without a desk needs to tape and staple on-the-go, or someone with a desk really needs to save 8 1/4 square inches of desk space. I’m not that person and that’s fine – trying to please everyone means not pleasing anyone. But even though I have no evidence, I get the sense that whoever designed this Stapeler knew their user, understood the problem, and solved it.

I should have bought it, because it somehow changed how I look at this kind of thing. I wouldn’t say “changed my life” but kind of changed my life. I think of it now when I come across solutions I don’t understand, and I’m now much more judicious about calling something a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Such things are out there, and they’re still fun, but it’s also fun to look at something and try to understand the problem it solves.

Reverse-engineered empathy, I guess. Is that a thing?