The Essence of a Problem

If you design anything, especially experiences, you’ve heard the term “problem solver.” Hordes of designers flock toward the title. I’m no exception. I’ve attributed my love for design to my innate love of problem-solving. From solving friends and family problems, or at least believing I did, or designing experiences that radically shift the global economy toward small business™, I’ve always loved my ability to hear a problem and come to a logical solution. We even try to solve problems when we don’t have the answers…

If you’ve been designing for a while, I’m sure you’ve worn, or continue to wear, the title “problem solver.” That being said, I pose the simple question…

What is a problem?

It feels like such an easy question. What is a problem? We’ve all experienced problems, have problems, and see other people’s problems. Yet, describing a problem is a challenge. It’s like trying to explain an emotion or a color, it’s so familiar yet it’s description is elusive.

Why does this even matter?

This would be a lot more obvious if we changed the context. What if your food preparer didn’t know what food was? She could feel it in her gut that a wrench and a slice of pizza are different, but she just couldn’t explain why. What if your car mechanic couldn’t explain how she knows she’s actually working on a car? When she sees a car, she just knows it, but she can’t tell you how. It’s immediately strange and begs to question whether these people really understand what they are doing.

Understanding what a problem is will help us identify when we see a problem. It will help us understand what problems are composed of. It will help us understand what the nature of a problem is and ultimately, understand how to approach solving them. If you don’t know what baseball is, how can you be sure you’re playing it? If you don’t know what a problem is, how can you be sure your solving it?

Of course I know what a problem is

I did an anonymous poll asking designers, who all stated they are problem solvers, begging the question “what is a problem?”

What designers said

A source of perplexity, distress, or vexation.
– Junior Designer
Something that deflects the path of a specific goal
– Designer
Something you must solve — it has no boundaries.
– UX Consultant
Something which requires a solution and once discovered makes users life easy and provide a great experience.
– UX Designer
It’s a thing that’s not defined yet.
– UX Researcher
A fact about the world that creates difficulty. (Hugely open-ended questions like this are also a problem.)*
– Senior Director of Product Experience
*My favorite answer

Of the sixteen responses I’ve received from designers, they all circulated around common themes. Most of the answers circled around the presence of difficulty and the necessity to be solved. Let’s break these down a little and see if we can get closer to defining a problem.

All things that are difficult are problems
Exercise is difficult
Exercise is a problem

That didn’t work, now let’s look at solutions. Saying that a problem is something that has to be solved is like saying that food is something that can be eaten. This is a false definition known as a circular definition. It’s basically saying “X is the opposite of the opposite of X.”

Think about it…

The anatomy of a problem

After scouring the web, I’ve found some foundations that we can use to start understanding what a problem is.

My argument

All problems exist
Things that exist have an origin
Things that exist have forces that influence their existence
All problems have a favored state
We long for favored states to fulfill an intrinsic desire
All problems have a perceived difference between the existing state and the favored state
Perceptions are relative

My definition…

A problem is a perceived misalignment of influencers to a current state and the influencers to an intrinsically desirable favored state.
— Craig Roberts

More simply, a problem is a perceived difference between the way something is headed and the way you really want them to go.


Breaking down a problem

All problems have existing states

For us to identify a problem, it has to exist. Existence doesn’t have to be confined to the laws of physics, ideas exist once pondered. It is imperative to understand that all problems have to exist because it keeps us from fabricating the existing state of a problem. Problems that don’t have existing states don’t have the origins and motivating factors needed to explore useful solutions.

This is an example of a solution solving a problem that didn’t exist.

Things that exist have an origin

For something to exist, it needs an origin. We are bound by time and causality. Understanding the difference between the existing state and its roots is vital in separating the great problem solvers from the good or bad ones.

Things that exist have forces that influence their existence

Everything that exists comes from somewhere, and factors are keeping it in existence. All of which are separate from its existence itself.

The existing state is like a shadow. Trying to alter it is a futile endeavor. You can’t touch it or mutate it. Everything that shapes the shadow comes from the object it’s casting from. Change the object, or the light source, you change the shadow.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
— Henry Ford

A great example of looking at the motivating factors of an existing state is the invention of the car. Before the car was invented, people needed to live near rail lines or stations if they wanted to be able to commute from the countryside to cities. The limit of horse-drawn wagon travel was 10 to 15 miles, horses needed a ton of food and water, and they defecated at an alarming rate. In New York City alone, each horse was averaging around twenty-two pounds of manure, about forty-five thousand tons a month.

Horse manure lined the streets like banks of snow and during the summer, the smell was overbearing. When it rained, rivers of manure flooded the streets and seeped into basements. New York City streets were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.”

Cars took over, and all the contributing factors to that existing state are now history. If Henry Ford had only focused on the existing state of the problem, he would have failed at solving it. He maybe would have tried to increase the horse’s endurance, speed, or something else that ultimately would have left the source of the problem intact.

He would have fallen into the trap of looking at the shadow of the problem, the horses, and making failed attempts to change the shadow. Ford was able to remove the causes of the existing state, the horses, to create a faster, more “environmentally friendly” mode of transportation that saved society from a manure-filled ending.

All problems have a favored state

A favored state is not the solution. The favored state does not include the solution, only illustrates the intended effect of the solution. All of the most significant problems in history have clearly defined favored states that are separated from their solutions. For example, the favored state for the problem of global warming is a world that stops warming, the favored state of America’s problem of racism is a country where racism doesn’t exist, the desired state for the manure-filled streets of New York City was a street without manure. None of these favored states outline the solution, only its intended effect.

It is essential to separate the favored state from solutions for the same reason we should consider the origins and motivating factors of existing states. When we confuse them, we stop looking for the reason the favored state exists, which informs us on how to bridge the connection. Faster horses weren’t the favored state. It was a proposed solution to get to the favored state of having a cleaner, more environmentally friendly, transportation system.

We long for favored states to fulfill an intrinsic desire

It is a huge philosophical debate as to the nature of desires. I won’t go into that debate here, but a widely accepted theory is the separation between intrinsic desires and instrumental desires. Instrumental desires help us fulfill intrinsic desires. Let’s take money for example. People don’t desire money because of money in itself. Money has no intrinsic value. If everyone died on earth, it would be useless to you. We desire money to fulfill intrinsic desires like taking care of our families, the desire for power, or the desire to be independent. All of the mentioned intrinsic desires are valuable in themselves. Professor Steven Reis created a list of our 16 intrinsic desires.

  • Acceptance, the need to be appreciated
  • Curiosity, the need to gain knowledge
  • Eating, the need for food
  • Family, the need to take care of one’s offspring
  • Honor, the need to be faithful to the customary values of an individual’s ethnic group, family or clan
  • Idealism, the need for social justice
  • Independence, the need to be distinct and self-reliant
  • Order, the need for prepared, established, and conventional environments
  • Physical activity, the need for work out of the body
  • Power, the need for control of will
  • Romance, the need for mating or sex
  • Saving, the need to accumulate something
  • Social contact, the need for a relationship with others
  • Social status, the need for social significance
  • Tranquility, the need to be secure and protected
  • Vengeance, the need to strike back against another person

Solutions are like money. People don’t desire the solution, they intend on using solutions the fulfill one of these intrinsic desires. Understanding how intrinsic desires fuel our favored states helps us separate solutions from desired states. It helps us to understand motivations, which will ultimately help us find the differences between our actions, motivations, and external factors to allow us to bridge the disconnect between our existing state and the favored state.

Solutions that help people fulfill intrinsic desires are more valuable and become staples in our society. Companies like Facebook and Twitter, for example, directly fulfill our intrinsic desire for social contact. As a result, we want it, and use it, more than products that satisfy more instrumental desires like taxi and dieting apps.

All problems have a perceived difference between the existing state and the favored states

A disconnect between what exists and what we want to exist is a core element of a problem. That disconnect is that gut feeling we get when we come across a problem. The difference between these states is what solutions try to solve. When you come up with a solution, you aren’t changing the existing or desired state, you’re bridging them.

Perceptions are relative

What we perceive is relative to the perceiver. I don’t really know the way I see red is the same as the way you see red. A slice of cake could be substantial to you and probably too small in my eyes. The size of the difference between the two states depends on many factors. Some factors include:

  • How much you know about the problem
  • Your experience with the problem
  • How much the problem affects you

This is why we unconsciously grade problems. The problem of children seems trivial because of how much we know about their existing state and the things they desire. Our experience allows us to more easily put the pieces together to bridge the gap, while children don’t understand the problem enough and find the number of unknowns daunting.

On the other hand, someone could have so much more knowledge and background on an existing state than you have, that it inflates the gap between the states to proportions you couldn’t imagine.

Here’s a quick example. I want my intrinsic desires of food and company to be fulfilled by having lunch with my partner at a place we both enjoy before 3 p.m. that’s relatively affordable. In my perspective, there is currently no consensus on what we both enjoy, what we define as affordable, or whether we both have the availability to eat by 3 p.m.; therefore I see a problem. My partner may already know the budget we are comfortable with, the places we both like and knows both our schedule, thus the vast gap I perceive doesn’t exist for her.

This relatively makes it vital for a problem solver to understand both states to create better connections. It also helps us become more empathetic to everyone’s problems, and forces us to get insights on perspectives we can’t see from our vantage point.

In conclusion

Understanding what we are solving is just as, if not more, valuable than understanding how to solve it. When approaching a problem, think about:

What is the current state?
Why does the current state exist?
What’s keeping the current state going?
What is the favored state?
What intrinsic desire does the favored state fulfill?
What are the diverse perspectives you should get on the perceived difference?
How do you change the influencers of the existing state to lead to the favored state? Or how do you change the perception of a difference?

Understanding, holistically, the facets of a problem helps us better break down a problem. It helps us begin the design process with the background, motivations, and intrinsic desires of the people we are solving for to create solutions that are more informed and empathetic. Hopefully, this definition of a problem helps you begin your design process on the right foot and move toward better solutions.

Thanks for reading!


“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”
– Albert Einstein