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Engine Works Blog

Under the hood of Alteryx: tips, tricks and how-tos.
Instructional Designer
Instructional Designer

At Alteryx, we want everyone to experience the thrill of solving, but that thrill doesn’t happen until the end of the problem solving process. The beginning of any project starts with a question which turns into many more questions. For most problem solvers, the question usually comes in a state that seems straightforward but is unsolvable as presented. The qualitative words used to form the question create confusion and make the task laid forward a struggle without anyone noticing. “Where are our customers coming from?” and “How can we improve our margins?” are examples of simple questions with endless possibilities.

 

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Alas, you are the one who will answer this problem because the buck stops with you. But where do you start? And how do you ensure that the answer you come up with is THE answer and not something only as valid as the next person’s stab in the dark? In this article, we will look at how to frame your problem so that solving is straightforward, if not intuitive.

 

The first thing to do is Unpack the Question. This means thinking deeply about the question, its source, and what it will take to answer that question in a way that is beneficial to the person asking for information. If something is unclear, don’t dive in and worry about that later. Instead, ask questions to make sure you are on the same page as the person asking for information. You may also need to involve third party subject matter experts to help you fully understand what is being asked. Once you feel comfortable with the question, start defining the items that you know need to be a part of the answer. What information fields must be included for the answer to make sense. Once you’ve listed those critical fields of data, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

 

After you’ve considered the critical fields and fully understand the question, don’t make the mistake of diving straight into solving. An often-overlooked step that is critical for success to Define Your Success, i.e., defining what success looks like. What is the end state of your solution? If you can’t articulate what your answer looks like, how will you know when you’ve finished solving the problem. Is the solution a list, a map, an action plan, a number, or taking immediate action?

 

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But the form your answer takes isn’t the only consideration critical to success. Definitions of fields and metrics are critical to any true understanding (aka insight) and most people take for granted that others share the definitions they’ve used. By clearing up these definitions, you enhance your understanding of the factors at play and make explanation/clarification much more straightforward, should it be required later on. Simple terms like “sales” or “revenue” seem self-explanatory, but it is always a good idea to clarify exactly what the data represents.

 

The final consideration when defining your success is timeframe. This doesn’t mean “how long will it take you to get back with an answer”, which is what everyone not solving the problem will think when they hear timeframe. Rather, this refers to how often will this problem need to be solved. Is this problem one that needs to be solved each month with fresh data inputs. Or is this a one-time problem that you won’t touch again? Will the input files add fields in the future that aren’t available yet? Thinking about these factors will inform the way you design your solution to maximize your efficiency.

 

At this point, you are ready to begin Shopping for Information. Odds are, you don’t own all the data you need to solve this problem. Actually, there’s a high likelihood that no one person or department owns all the data you’ll need. Fortunately, you’ve already got your “shopping list” from when you considered what information is critical while unpacking the question. Check items off that list when you have the location of the data AND you’ve ensured that you have the required permissions to access that data. Knowing who else has access to that data might also be an important factor as you progress.

 

Equally important is thinking about the state of the data available. Is it clean, meaning that the data is accurate, reliable, complete, and formatted in a useful way? Perfection is a rare trait, so you will likely need to use what you have in order to get what you need. Getting to know the state of your data now makes the process of working with that data later on much easier.

 

But what happens when no one has what you need? No one said problem solving was easy and unfortunately, this is a common issue. If you find data that is close to what you need, assess the possibility of altering that data to suit your needs. If no data is available or you can’t trust its source, you may need to search the web for third-party datasets or involve your IT/webmasters to setup collection of the data required. Be patient if this eventuality becomes your reality because you are now relying on others and they’ve got their own jobs! But don’t let waiting on others stop you from working on the problem after you’ve ironed out how you will get the data you need. In the meantime, start working on the next step…

 

We have arrived at the one and only step most folks use when doing what they call “problem solving”; Sequence the Steps. In this phase, you begin manipulating the data you have to get closer to solving your problem. With a clear understanding of your data sources/limitations, you can begin shaping your masterpiece. Most would agree that there is value in the data, after all, that’s why we’ve been collecting and storing it. But getting something truly useful out of the raw materials available requires a skilled problem solver. Not to fear, you’ve thought about the problem and you know what you need from this data.

 

Start by identifying what you can get rid of straightaway. The datasets you’ve identified are bound to include information you don’t need to answer your specific problem. Eliminating those items early on will make it easier to manipulate the data you are interested in and won’t tax your resources (or sanity) after they’ve been removed. Next, determine what needs to happen to the data you’ve kept. Do you need to organize it, combine it with other data, or perform a calculation?

 

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It’s easy to be overwhelmed at this stage. Odds are, you need to do all of the above, multiple times and in different ways. Maybe you need to include columns from 5 different sources which will be multiplied and summed to find grand totals and then need to be sorted by zip code. Or maybe you need to rank items based on the distance and drive times they are from multiple locations to determine the most convenient place for the company’s retreat. Regardless of the problem you’re solving, you need to take it one step at a time. Each action you take gets you closer to the answer so don’t stress about making a wrong move.

 

This process is not easy and it usually takes the most brainpower, but by realizing that each step is manageable (and you can take as many as you need), you can eat the elephant one bite at a time. This part of the process is very much the nitty-gritty and will require trial and error. Don’t be afraid to try something because you won’t be able to solve the problem by only thinking about it. You may realize that there are more steps to solving your problem than the ones you listed. If need to go back to the beginning of the process, that is OK. Keep going and don’t get discouraged if you have to go through this process more than once to solve one problem.

 

Several Eureka moments later, you’ll find what you seek and enter the final phase of problem solving, REAP THE REWARDS! You’ve toiled away until arriving at the end state you clearly identified at the beginning of this process. It wasn’t easy, but you got your answer and you know how to get it again if necessary. You never have to solve this problem again! Now, you can use your time to analyze the results and apply the insight available. Truly informed decisions can now be made, because you not only have the answer, but can explain where it came from and get it again, at any time. You can share that information with decision makers or convert your solution into other forms (like visuals or web portals) which make the results available to the masses without need for any explanation.

 

The problem-solving process is difficult, and it isn’t for everyone. But by using these steps, the roadmap to success is clear and the thrill of solving within reach. You will acquire knowledge and skills along the way, and the right tool for the job is invaluable, but it’s your determination and mindset that make you unstoppable!

Ian W
Instructional Designer

Ian joined Alteryx as an Instructional Designer in 2018, having previously created training materials for the Oil & Gas and Healthcare industries. Ian’s focus is creating helpful content to get new Alteryx users up and running as quickly as possible. No muss, no fuss, just learning!

Ian joined Alteryx as an Instructional Designer in 2018, having previously created training materials for the Oil & Gas and Healthcare industries. Ian’s focus is creating helpful content to get new Alteryx users up and running as quickly as possible. No muss, no fuss, just learning!

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