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Criteria for Evaluating a Creative Solution

Robert Harris
Version Date: July 20, 2012

Some idea of the value or merit of an idea (or a solution to a problem) can be discovered by the degree to which it fulfills some or all of the following criteria, as appropriate. How significant a solution is will be determined by the problem itself. Inventing a new antacid is obviously less significant than finding a cure for cancer, but both can be evaluated using these criteria. As an aid to  help evaluate the solution's match to  each criterion, some common expressions that indicate a match are included.

Successful

Solves the Problem Effectively.
 The solution achieves the stated goals, meets a need well.
Because many solutions are only partial, the degree to which the solution works is also an important part of this measure.
And because there are often several solutions to the same problem, the degree of superiority of the solution is important.
Has acceptable tradeoffs.
Negative side effects (collateral damage in a military operation, side effects of a medication, hostile customer reaction, high electrical consumption) must also be factored in.
Failure to consider tradeoffs is a major weakness in much problem solving. It's always a good idea to ask relevant questions.

Meets Constraints.
 The solution works within the stated constraints to the problem (or overcomes or circumvents them in some acceptable way).
Acceptable to Users.
The solution is agreeable to those who must implement it, to society, to those affected by it. It is not "technologically brilliant but sociologically stupid."
The solution has positive secondary effects or benefits and no (or minor) negative secondary effects.
Acceptance is a perceptual, emotional, and psychological phenomenon, as well as an intellectual and experiential one. It is crucial to think beyond the engineering, beyond the technology, when deciding whether the solution is or will be successful. You may have invented an anti-gravity device, but if no one will use it, it is not a successful solution.

Efficient

Good Cost/Benefit Ratio.
The solution is economical, with high price/performance ratio.
Money (that of corporations and individuals) exists in finite amounts, and all solutions must compete with each other for these limited resources.

Practical.

The solution is logical, useful, systematic, understandable, "do-able," not overly difficult or complex for the intended benefits. It is as simple and direct as possible for the desired outcome.
Sometimes a seemingly impractical solution is actually only a communication problem. Many new Internet companies, for example, seem unable to explain in a few, clear words, just what they do.

Reliable.

The solution will continue to work over time with a high degree of reliability, consistency, and effectiveness.
Dependability is at the core of user satisfaction. The parts cost may be trivial, but replacement cost in labor, disruption, and psychic trauma add up quickly. Or if the matches are great when they light, but they don't always light. . . .

A component of reliability is duration or even permanence. Will the solution continue to work over time (unless it is designed to be temporary), or will it stop working or fail at some point? Putting a cheap battery in a smoke alarm will make it work for perhaps a year, while a lithium ion battery could provide ten years of maintenance-free service.

New

Novelty, newness, innovation--difficult to achieve in a world already filled with solutions. But the surprise of the next great idea is always nearby. Cliches about thinking outside the box might seem appropriate here, but real innovation requires thinking outside the warehouse where the boxes are stored.

Original.
The solution is innovative, breaking new ground.
An improvement can be included in originality if it is truly innovative. And there are different forms of originality--process, use, and even design. For example, a ball point pen with a particularly great design may be seen as original from a design point of view.

Surprising.

The solution is unusual, out of the ordinary lines of thought. It might appear obvious in hindsight, but the really creative solution is nearly always surprising at first encounter.
Seminal.
The solution provides the foundation for further, similar solutions, opens new vistas for further development. It represents a beginning--a new line of inquiry--with the promise of a future.

Coherent

Unified.
The solution is organized, seamless, synthetic, organic, holistic, competent.
Solutions that involve a clear (and perhaps even simple) conceptual design, are most likely to emerge as unified.

Refined.

The solution is synergetic, high quality, good, well-designed, well-crafted, well-executed.
The best solutions have usually passed through several iterations of the refinement process before being implemented. (Of course, refinement continues after the solution collides with the "real world" as well.)

Esthetic.

The solution is artistic, attractive, beautiful, enduring, timeless, likable.
Many a great technology has failed because it was put into an ugly plastic shell. A little knowledge of semiotics would be helpful here. Semiotics is the study of how things produce meaning. When you twist a knob in your car, does it make you feel that you are in a high quality car? Or does the click of the knob feel so cheap and flimsy that you get the impression you are driving a piece of junk? Think about the fact that for many perfumes, the bottle costs a lot more than the perfume inside. A heavy, crystal shaped bottle, perhaps with a glass stopper, say "expensive, high quality, elegance" to many people.

Similarly, an idea can project beauty or elegance as well as an object. And an idea can also project flimsy ad hoc carelessness.
As mentioned, some of these ideas may not be relevant to a particular solution. Novelty, for example, is more important in consumer goods than other areas. For further information, see the articles on Creative Thinking and Problem Solving on the VirtualSalt Home Page.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com