Problem definition in design thinking

A few weeks ago, I wrote about empathy in design thinking. I received great feedback and people asked about the next step after understanding the user and the way they do things. Well, this is a great question and so I have decided to answer it in this blog post.

Problem definition

Problem definition is the next step and is what we are going to look at today. Defining starts when you gather anything that captures information and impression about the user.

Problem definition design process is where idea generation starts. Here is where “going wide” comes into play in terms of concepts and results.

Why should we define?

We need to define for us to move from problem identification to solution creation which in other terms we can call point-of-view.

It’s not about coming up with the ‘right’ idea, it’s about generating the broadest range of possibilities.
- Hasso Plattner, Institute of design at Stanford

We are in a society where some of us designers think that design is the visual object or the presentation skills a creative person creates; pictures, models, sketches etc. It is important to note that design happens prior to these results. Think of point-of-view (POV) as the process of creating a meaningful and actionable problem statement that will inform your design. POV defines the right user problem to tackle and solve based on the new understanding of the users and the problem space!

Defining empowers us to combine our findings scattered all over into strong insights. It is this combination of empathy work that gives the designers the edge no one else has: discoveries that leverage to tackle the design challenge; INSIGHT.

How should we then, define?

In my post on empathy in design thinking, I wrote about talking and observing users and the importance of paying attention to the disconnect between what a user says and what he does. — Most powerful realizations come from this.When approaching problem definition, consider what came out when talking and observing users.

Develop an understanding of the type of person you are designing for — your USER. Combine and select a limited set of NEEDS that you think are important to fulfill; you may, in fact, express a just one single need to look at. Strive to express INSIGHTS you developed through the combination of all the information your gathered through empathy and research work. The next step after this is to Then join a point-of-view by combining these three important elements — user, need, and insight — as an actionable problem statement that will advise and inform the rest of your design work.

A good point-of-view therefore, is one that:

  • Provides focus and packages the problem
  • Inspires you and the design team
  • Provides criteria for weighing competing ideas
  • Empowers you and the team to make independent and parallel decisions
  • Captures the souls and minds of users you meet and interviewed
  • Provides a discrete problem statement.

In the problem definition, you determine the specific meaningful challenge to take
on, and in the Ideate mode you focus on generating solutions to address that challenge. A well-scoped and -articulated point-of-view will lead you into ideation in a very natural way. In fact, it is a great litmus test of your point-of-view to see if brainstorming topics fall out your POV.

A great transition step to take is to create a list of “How-Might-We . . .?” brainstorming topics that flow from your problem statement. These brainstorming topics typically are subsets of the entire problem, focusing on different aspects of the challenge. Then when you move into ideation you can select different topics, and try out a few to find the sweet spot of where the group can really churn out a large quantity of compelling ideas.

After successfully completing problem definition then you are ready to jump into the next stage, ideation.

References: Institute of Design at Stanford, Design thinking process guide.

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