You Can’t Solve a Problem That You Can’t Define

The world is full of problems, and that is why we have designers.
Designers solve problems.

But designers can’t solve problems that they can’t define. Defining a problem sounds like an easy and straightforward task – but the more thought we put behind it, the stronger our problem statement will be. And the stronger our problem statement, the more effective our solutions.

When writing a problem statement, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this actually a problem?
    Sometimes what we think is a problem, really isn’t. Or sometimes a problem we think can be solved through a certain type of design solution, requires a totally different approach. This is why it’s so important to define the problem in the first place.
  • What evidence do we have that this problem exists?
    Maybe we heard about this problem from a friend, but do we have proof that it really exists? The vocal minority may not be the best indicator of the true nature of a problem. We need to gather data to show evidence that this really is a problem.
  • Who is impacted by this problem?
    We need to figure out who the problem impacts by looking at all of the people involved. It can be useful to identify the extremes – the people who are most and least impacted by the problem. But we really want to focus on all of the people in the middle. Who are these individuals, and how are their lives impacted by this problem?
  • Is this problem relevant and meaningful?
    Life is full of problems. As designers, we have a limited amount of time and energy. Make sure you are solving problems that truly are relevant and meaningful to your audience – and problems that won’t solve themselves quickly in time.
  • What is the context of this problem?
    What factors contribute this problem? What is the environment like around this problem? What is the culture surrounding the problem? What are the feelings and attitudes of the people involved?
  • How frequently does this problem occur?
    If it’s just a one-time thing, it isn’t worth investing the time and energy to solve it. But problems that happen frequently, or that persist over time, are the ones you really want to go after, as they will have the greatest impact.

We can gather information to answer these questions through research into the problem and observations of the people impacted by this problem. We want our problem statement to be grounded in real world context and evidence – so it’s important to spend time up front making these observations and completing this research. We can collate data from other sources that we’ve already compiled, such as empathy maps and personas, to help us frame the problem.

When it comes time to write the problem statement, we can use the format

________________ is a challenge for ____________________ because ___________________

This format helps us to name the user, define the problem, and identify the factors that contribute to this problem. Once we have a clear problem statement, we can begin to search for solutions.

The Interaction Design Foundation describes several strategies that can help us with writing problem statements, including:

  • Brainstorming to create affinity diagrams
  • Empathy mapping
  • Point of View Statements
  • “How Might We” questions

All of these strategies help us generate ideas that can then be synthesized into succinct statements that clearly identify the problems we are trying to solve. Problem definition, although seemingly straightforward, is really a more complex process that has a huge impact on the overall success of a project. We can’t solve a problem that we can’t define.

Below are several examples of problem statements, based off observations of individuals on the show Undercover Boss.

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