Do-it-yourself Design Thinking

How to write a design challenge

Design thinking is popular. Earlier today, I saw a Kickstarter campaign. Four women from Stanford are going on a road trip to introduce concepts of Design Thinking to middle school girls across the U.S. They've raised almost $25,000 for their efforts.

I want to focus this piece on one part of design thinking, often the most difficult decision for a team usually the first step and arguably the most important.

It’s a design challenge, which I’ll define as:

framing the overarching problem you intend to solve.

The importance can’t be understated. This is the question you write in big letters at the top of your whiteboard. It’s what everyone on your team should have in the back of their minds when they start to specialize on certain tasks.

It’s funny, I spent solid time in the last three weeks writing an entirely different piece explaining how to brainstorm a design challenge.

It was a little case study I came up with about a small roofing business that needs react to changes in the roofing market. A good title for it might be “How to Write a Design Challenge for a Small Business.”

I might end up publishing that piece as well.

But I had a streak of inspiration recently, and began writing this piece and couldn't stop, so I’m publishing this one first.

In this piece, I’m going to lay out the steps you might take if you’re trying to come up with your own design challenge.

Jumping back into how to come up with a design challenge….

It’s importance is simple.

A single design challenge can unify a group, as groups often can fall victim to individuals holding steadfast to their own ideas.

By uniting everyone around a single design challenge, you may find your group infused with new life. Everyone’s creativity can now be released to collaborate around an underlying challenge to work on.

Higher morale, more cohesion, better workflow, keeping group focus, a boost in creativity, and most importantly — more fun!

These are all things I’ve noticed working in teams once a single design challenge is determined and agreed upon.

In this piece, I’m going to lay out the steps you might take if you’re trying to come up with your own design challenge.

What constitutes a design challenge?

Let’s say you are part of a group that wants to end world hunger.

Okay that’s nice.

But it isn’t a design challenge.


It’s too vague.

How about this instead?

“How can NGOs amplify the effectiveness of existing food delivery programs in sub-Saharan Africa?”

Okay. That’s more specific.

We’re going to be taking a look at an existing NGO program, and determine if more can be done.

It feels more actionable to me.

But it still isn't a design challenge.


There are three criteria for a design challenge:

  1. It must be specific enough to be actionable, but broad enough to allow for exploration.
  2. It should be written in a human-centered way.
  3. It should focus on the problem, not the solution.

The prior design challenge would probably be fine, but an even better design challenge would be human-centered

and framed from the perspective of the end-user, which may not necessarily be the NGO…

“How can families facing extreme hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa obtain sufficient quantities of food for survival?”

This challenge doesn’t assume the NGO is the solution.

It leaves open the possibility for other solutions, such as reducing post-harvest lost (food supply chain), or improved savings mechanisms.

For example, we may discover in research that hunger is a seasonal problem — money is sufficient during harvest season, but runs out a few months before the return of the next year’s harvest.

Granted, if the NGO has hired you to analyze their internal systems, they certainly could be the end-user for whom you are designing.

How about this as a design challenge?

“Provide infants who have insufficient nutritional intake with Plumpy’Nut, an affordable food alternative.”

That sounds great!

But it isn't a design challenge.


It’s too specific.

And in this statement you've already settled on a solution and you’re mandating an answer, which is to provide Plumpy’Nut.

This leaves less room for exploring the problem.

Make sense?

Brainstorming a design challenge…

is a few simple steps.

First, list all the problems you’re facing:

world hunger
infant mortality
ineffective NGOs
food accessibility
insufficient income

Then, re-frame these same problems in “a human-centered way with the feeling of possibility”:

— How do families and children with severely limited sources of income receive sufficient caloric intake?

— Allow NGOs to better assess the impact of their food programs in developed countries.

— Can farming and food distribution methods in industrialized nations be replicated in developing countries?

Then as a group, decide on one challenge you’d like to focus your attention.

So maybe as a group we decide our design challenge is something we came up with earlier:

“How can families facing extreme hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa obtain sufficient quantities of food for survival?”

→Helpful Hint←

The most difficult part of this process is rewriting the list of problems as design challenges that meet the three criteria.

To make it easier, try to begin your design challenge list with a QUESTION: “How can…” or a VERB: “Provide, Empower, Develop, Create, Connect”.

Great! I want to know what comes next…

Later steps in design thinking include the WHO? identify/brainstorm all the users in this ecosystem, such as mothers, infants, NGOs, donors, scientists, nutritionists…

and the WHAT? the questions you would like to ask those in your target audiences.

and the HOW? the research methods you might use to get this information — such as secondary research (i.e. reading things online), contextual inquiry (following around someone for a day — like a family affected by hunger), in-depth interviews in person (say an hour), short phone interviews (say 20 minutes).

The solution manifests itself once you’ve begun to talk to relevant people and as you further explore these three questions:

SCALE — how big of a problem is this?

TECHNOLOGY — what technologies exist that could remedy this problem?

BUSINESS— will this be something end users find valuable, in the sense will they be willing to commit their time or money for the solution?

How did I learn Design thinking?

I learned Design Thinking by practicing it of course. How did I practice it?
Andy and Jason at the Design Gym in Brooklyn did a fantastic job teaching a reasonably priced two day, six hour course, where design methods were taught, and we were released out into the field and had one week to gather interviews, and maybe an hour and a half to process all the qualitative research our group gathered and deliver a short 1 minute presentation to the stakeholders who were in the room.

I read the IDEO’s design manual, which was often wordy and pedantic, but the pages about a design challenge were useful. I then used a design challenge methodology to consolidate opinions from nine diverse people in a Startup Hackathon at Zillow. By allow the group to openly explore problems they want to solve, and framing these problems on post-its, we ultimately were able to explore the problems and decide on a single challenge we could all get behind. The design challenge we decided upon was: “Afford retirees (age 55+) better information as they consider downsizing from their current home.”

I drew from Eric Ries’ “Lean Startup” to go out on the street and to coffee shops, and conduct interviews with potential users of my idea, a way to make it easier to organize groups together. I call Eric’s methods “hypothesis testing for business”. I consolidated five months worth of interviews, discussions with people with start-up experience wiser than myself and the elusive quest to build a business into a short story: “How to Try and Fail at Building a Mobile App.”

Taking action

Things you read and hear and see must be practiced by you. And the hardest part is practicing because it’s much easier to read without taking action.

Use this piece as a springboard.

If you’re in a group, try to work with your team on brainstorming a design challenge.

It can be a particularly useful tool for keeping the group focused.

It can also unleash creativity once a single design challenge is decided upon.

You now have something concrete enough to solve, but broad enough to leave exploration into the problem open.