How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is

(with Donald C. Gause )

* ISBN: 0-932633-16-1 176 pages soft cover

Dorset House Publishers

(translated into Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean)

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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 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, 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…. 😉

“A Great Book”


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

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…,

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!

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

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.

A great book and I highly recommend it.

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


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