Are Your Lights On? 

How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is

(with Donald C. Gause )

(translated into Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese)

An entertaining look into the human activity of problem solving, this book tells you how to figure out what the problem really is, determine whose problem it is anyway, and decide whether you really want to solve it. Complete with 55 humorous illustrations, this "cult classic" is so enjoyable you may not immediately recognize what a strong impact it has on your outlook. This book is designed for all kinds of problem solvers and anybody who loves a good read.

Here's a a recent review from Tim Ottinger [Object Mentor Inc. | OOA/D, C++, more..

[email protected] | | Training/Consulting]

I'm receiving requests for information on "Are Your Lights On" by Gause and Weinberg. Here goes:

It has such wonderful statements as "In spite of appearances, people seldom know what they want until you give them what they ask for", and "The fish is always last to see the water". But it's not just a bunch of witty sarcasm (like Scott Adams), it's a really useful book on problem solving and human nature.

It's a tiny book of only 156 pages (1990 edition, at least), but it's fun and potent. I came across it accidentally when I got mine (selection of the month at a book club, forgot to return the slip: an accident I'll never regret).

I have read it twice, and probably will read it again real soon. With an eye to patterns.... ;-)

More Reviews


John R. Rhodes wrote a long review, concluding with

"Are Your Lights On? is a great book and I highly recommend it. As I have indicated, several of the core ideas apply to web usability and usability testing. In fact, I think that usability testing is just an interesting subset of problem solving. There is certainly more to it than that, but they really are close cousins. "


An easily readable book that inspires better problem-solving, January 4, 1997

Reviewer: A reader (Source:

I manage programmers. I need people who think on their feet and who know how to cut through the B.S. (no, not Bachelor of Science) and get to the real issues, then solve them.

That's why I'm buying everyone on my staff a copy of this book, now that I've managed to find a vendor who can get it.

Published originally in the 1970's, this book focuses on a number of creative approaches to solving seemingly intractable problems. Not a cookbook with recipes for specific problems, Are Your Lights On? inspires every reader to develop her own approaches to problems by emphasizing how many different ways there really are to skin a cat.

The book tells a number of stories that present sticky problems and then concludes the stories with how those problems were solved. The style of the writing is extremely informal and amusing while never patronizing. Entertaining pen and ink sketches illustrate the stories and the reader just keeps going because it's fun. But never mistake the seriousness of the book's purpose. One fantasizes about sending copies to Benjamin Netanyahu and Yassir Arafat with the cover note, "Read this and then try again."


You will wear this book out..., May 18, 1998

Reviewer: [email protected] from Houston, Texas (Source:

I am buying my second copy of this book as I literally wore out my first - bought about 15 years ago. I have copied and quoted from it since it was first published and loaned it out. In my opinion, it is the best available book on problem solving. I have used it to teach members of my staff effective problem solving and it is universal - I am not in systems development. You will love the story that is the basis for the title.


Informative, Funny, entertaining Masterpiece!, May 24, 2000

Reviewer: Scott Humphreys from Seattle, WA (Source:

This book is offers a wonderful approach to problem solving while maintaining your interest with hilarious anecdotes. I will recommend it to everyone I can. I can't praise it enough.


Best introduction to problem identification available., January 26, 1998

Reviewer: A reader from USA Ca. (Source:

Deceptively simple and effortless to read with an enormous payback! Simply the best book on problem definition. Forces you to think about what the problem is before you decide to tackle it. Should be read often. Promotes common sense.


Source: > Moving WebWord > Book Review: Are Your Lights On?  (13-Mar-2001)

Book Review: Are Your Lights On? 

by John S. Rhodes 


Usability is a relatively new idea when you consider that problem solving has been going on, well, basically forever. Humans are problem solving machines. Everyone has problems; everyone solves problems. It should come as no surprise that usability has a lot to learn from the art and science of problem solving.

I recently finished Are Your Lights On? by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg. It is a book that is all about problem solving. I've met Don and he is a great guy. Like many good professors, if you ask him a question, he will turn around and ask you a question that is really the answer that you want. His book is full of great little tips and tricks like this. More importantly, at just over 150 pages it is easy to digest. It serves as a great introduction to problem solving.

If there is one thing that I learned from Are Your Lights On? it is that people don't do a very good job at problem solving. Like usability, while problem solving seems so obvious in retrospect, it is actually quite difficult. Let me correct that. Solving problems is actually easy in much the same way that doing usability is easy. If you want to solve problems correctly, then you need to understand the problems very well. You need to figure out what the problem really is. You need to define it, you need all the requirements, and you generally need to do a lot of work upfront. 

Before I hit the core ideas, let me provide you with the definition of a problem, as provided by the text: A problem is a difference between things as desired and things as perceived. I really like this definition. While it can be argued that it is too broad, I think it is exactly right. You can build the scope of a problem around this definition. A problem can be large or a problem can be small. A problem can be objective or subjective. In my mind, I can use this definition to draw a line from Point A (the way things are right now) to Point B (the way that I desire things). It feels very solid even though problems are not solid at all.

Enough of my drivel. In the next section I will explain several core points from the book. I will do my best to apply the ideas to usability. It isn't that hard since so much of usability is actually problem solving. 


Core Ideas

1. Phantom problems are real problems. Just because there does not seem to be a problem it does not mean that there is not a problem. When users have imaginary problems, there is still a need to find a way to eliminate them (the problems, not the users!). Managing perceptions, like imaginary problems, is at the heart of the usability game. Remember, to a user, both types of problems seem the same. Humans have a funny way deciding what is real and what is not!

2. It is a good idea to mathematically quantify a problem. This will help a group to more unambiguously understand a problem. The language of math is generally objective. Math is a great equalizer in terms of communication. More math should be used in usability.

3. A solution method is not the same a problem definition. Stated in my own words, you must understand the problem before you explain how you are going to solve it. If you are providing a solution you need to make sure you understand the problem and you need to make sure you solving the right problem. Don't discount this point.

4. If you solve a complex problem too fast, it will not seem like the solution is a good one. Despite what you have learned, there really are times when speed can work against you. You should use the extra time available to check your answer, look for flaws, search for alternatives, and look for ramifications of the solution. Also, you can use extra time to make sure you answered the right problem. You might want to find out if the solution is realistic versus optimal. Be ready to provide alternatives. There a few times when there is exactly one right answer, especially with web usability.

5. Even when a problem is solved, you will never know if you fully understood the problem definition. Never. There are always hidden variables and background information that you do not have available. You are always dealing with limited information. However, even with this problem, you should never give up on trying to understand the problem even after you have a solution. This directly ties into the iterative design cycles you often find in usability testing.

6. First impressions are very important, even critical, but they are not the law. There is more to solving a problem than a first impression. Look beyond your gut feelings. Luke Skywalker can tap into the Force, you cannot. Get the details. Get the facts. Don't just make guesses.

7. Every solution will cause at least one problem. As Don Gause and Gerald Weinberg point out, each solution is the source of the next problem. It is very likely that you are only working on a few links in an entire chain of problems. The scope of your problem must be chosen with great care.

8. One of the hardest things about solving a problem is knowing that it even exists. Most problems are hidden problems. In usability testing, a core goal is to discover problems so that they can be corrected. If you are a designer or developer, you should assume that you have done a good job. However, you must also assume that you have created more problems with your creation. Your solution is a problem. If you have these thoughts then it will be easier to know that problems exist and you can hunt them down.

9. By the time a problem hits a user the designer is usually gone and away. This makes it easy for people to blame users. This also means that designers will continuously develop misfits if usability is not added to the development mix. Misfits are generally easy to solve once they are identified. 

10. Changing the problem statement will change the problem, and the solution to the problem. Similarly, what people say about a problem will change how it is solved. For example, if the context makes the problem seem trivial, then it will be treated as such.  

11. Humans tend to place a problem on the semantic level that that they find most comfortable. When it is comfortable, the problem solutions will pour out, when it is not comfortable, the problems solutions will seem very difficult. The core idea is that people use their own language and ideas to define and solve problems. Let's say you hate math but a problem is stated mathematically. If that happens, you are less likely to understand the problem and you are less likely to want to solve it. Note that semantic problems are real problems. When you state the problem, make sure that all parties involved understand the language and meaning. If you don't, you will probably fail. This idea is important in many ways. It also applies to how users interact with web sites. If you don't use their language and if you don't fit the site to fit their stereotypes then it will be less successful and less usable. 

12. Blame yourself for the problem. It doesn't matter what the problem is, blame yourself. World hunger? That's my fault. Potholes? Also my fault! Even if you truly know that the problem is not your fault, blame yourself. It changes your perspective. It is opens your eyes. So go ahead and take it on the chin!

13. A reminder is a solution. Did you take your pill? Are your lights on? Do you have enough gasoline? These questions are actually solutions because they prime people. These kinds of questions make people realize that they have problems and they also implicitly provide a solution. For example, if I ask if you took your pill and they you realize you did not, then you will remember to take your pill and your problem is solved. Beautiful!

14. Most people, most of the time feel that they have a problem. People like to complain, too. Understand this and you have struck gold. 

15. People don't usually know what they want until you give it to them. Sometimes you need to draw on your creative juices. Also, you might want to spend a lot of time going through design iterations. Develop, test, change, test, change, test, change, and so forth. You get the idea. However, don't get stuck in an endless loop. Specify the design time and stick to the schedule. Schedules will help you solve your problem. They will help you focus on the right problems. 

16. It seems that we never have enough time to consider what we want but we do have forever to regret what we have done. I feel that this is an argument for doing a lot of frontloading. Do your homework. Do more work early and you will save time overall. It is hard to do but it works. It works in problem solving (i.e., understand the problem before you solve it!) and it works with web development (i.e., do usability testing early).

Are Your Lights On? is a great book and I highly recommend it. As I have indicated, several of the core ideas apply to web usability and usability testing. In fact, I think that usability testing is just an interesting subset of problem solving. There is certainly more to it than that, but they really are close cousins.


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