Define Your Problems for Better Solutions

Problem definition is often the most underrated, overlooked, and even avoided step in the problem solving process – despite it’s ability to make a huge impact on the success of a solution. The emphasis on this step in design thinking is one of the main reasons it is so effective at developing powerful, innovative solutions.

Human brains don’t like uncertainty; we’re literally hardwired to do whatever we can to immediately alleviate the stress inflicted by an unsolved problem. However, by stepping back and taking the time to reframe and identify the root of your problem, you may be able to take your solutions to levels you never imagined.

What is Problem Definition?

So what exactly is problem definition, or reframing (terms that can be used interchangeably)? Simply put, this is where you clearly articulate a defensible description of the specific issue you’ll be tackling.

Here are a few examples of highly successful reframes throughout history.

Problem: People in 1800’s need to get places more quickly.

  • Traditional Approach: How might we breed horses that run faster?
  • Henry Ford’s Reframe: How might we design another mode of individual transportation?

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

– Henry Ford

(Note: there’s no evidence Henry Ford actually said this, but it does illustrate a good point about the link between defining problems and innovation.)

Problem: During WWI, the Allies needed to crack the ever-changing German Enigma code.

  • Traditional Approach: How might we find more highly intelligent mathematicians to crack the code?
  • Alan Turing’s Reframe: How might we create a machine, which is smarter than any man, that can crack the code for us?

“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

– Alan Turing

Both of these talented problem solvers were experts at taking a problem, suspending the impulse to implement the first solution, examining it from all sides, then reframing the problem to a clearly defined, more narrow interpretation.

Defining the Problem

There are many, many different ways to approach problem definition, but if this is a new concept for you or if you’re interested in trying out a new strategy, here are the four steps I teach to my college students, as well as use in my own problem solving process.

Step One: Get Your Bearings

Before you start to tackle the problem, it’s important to get your bearings. Again, our brains like to jump to the first conclusion, which could interfere with your ability to come to the best solution. This is the time to both explore as well as push past your first ideas into other spaces you may not have thought of right off the bat.

To get your bearings, you can start by:

  • Highlighting what you think is important
  • Brainstorming key aspects or sources of the problem

Use the information you collected in the Discover & Empathize phase to help guide you here. This is where stickie notes are extremely helpful. A good way to get your bearings is to write down each individual idea on to a stickie, then begin sorting and categorizing them in different ways. You may see patterns start to emerge that will point you to the root of the problem.

Step Two: Do Your Research

After you explore what you do know, it’s time to dig in to what you don’t know. By this phase it’s likely that you have an initial idea of the breadth and depth of the issue, and have now identified holes in your knowledge you need to fill. For big messy problems (ones that are poorly constrained, affect a lot of people, and don’t have any predefined solutions), its likely that you may never have a complete understanding – but it’s highly important to try.

While researching, consider:

  • Going back to your stakeholders/users for clarification and to gather even more data
  • Combing through the internet (Google Scholar is great for this)
  • Visiting your local library, or see if you can get access to a nearby university library
  • Exploring your own personal experiences (to be used as a supplementary, not as primary support)

Step Three: Narrow the Options

By now you should have a handful of ideas that stand out, so it’s time to actually articulate your definitions/reframes. These should be diverse and defensible – meaning not simply variations on the same root cause, and backed by data or research. These typically take the form of “How might we…” statements, as you saw in the above examples.

The team behind the Embrace Infant Warmer did a fantastic job of narrowing down their problem definitions based on empathy and thorough research; I highly recommend taking a read here.

Step Four: Negotiate to a Definition

The final step is to work with your team and key stakeholders to nail down the problem you’re going to solve. For example, if you’ve been hired as the design team to solve a problem for a client, that client is the ultimate decision maker for which direction you go. If you’re the team lead on a project at your company, your boss will be this person. If you’re working with two friends on a startup, the three of you need to agree. Most likely there will be some push-pull happening here as you work your way towards deciding which “How might we…” statement is going to be the one.

Iteration is King

As you prepare to move on to the Ideate step, remember: this process is iterative! As you continue to work on your solution you may come across more information that changes which reframe you tackle – and that’s okay! You can always cycle back to any of the design steps, no matter how far along you might be. In fact, iteration is one of the main reasons that the design process is so successful in solving problems. When you’re flexible and able to pivot at any time, you’re in a much better place to eventually find the best solution.



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