How To Properly Frame Your Design Challenge

Thomas Anderson
May 27, 2016 · 5 min read

Intro to Human Centred Design

In its simplest definition, human centred design is ‘a creative approach to problem solving’ (IDEO). It’s a process that takes into account the needs of real people, then through intense periods of research, ideation, prototyping and iteration, aims to develop an innovative solution to a problem. Human centred design was pioneered by international design and consulting firm IDEO in the 1990’s, and it is predominantly IDEO’s design methodology, and an adapted version of their tool to frame design challenges, that will be explored in this post.

Despite popularising the approach, the use of the human centred design process is by no means limited to IDEO. According to Joseph Giacomin of the Human Centred Design Institute at Brunel University, human centred design is ‘based on the use of techniques which communicate, interact, empathise and stimulate the people involved, obtaining an understanding of their needs, desires and experiences’. Giacomin also states that the outcome of the process should be ‘products, systems and services which are physically, perceptually, cognitively and emotionally intuitive’.

Another great example of the human centred design process as used outside, and before the existence of, IDEO, is provided by Dave Thomsen CEO of Wonderful Media. He cites the product development of the breakfast cereal Cornflakes by inventor W.K. Kellogg as an example of human centred design. He says ‘Kellogg’s genius came not just in his flair for food product invention, but also in his customer-centric approach, iterative prototyping process and careful consideration of the entire product experience — from the cereal itself to its packaging, marketing and distribution. Kellogg was more than a brilliant food scientist and marketer. He was also a brilliant designer.’

IDEO’s London office (Image from

Why You Should Frame Your Design Challenge

The human centred design process as used by IDEO consists of three main stages — Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation. In this post I am focusing on the first stage, Inspiration, which according to IDEO is about ‘learning on the fly, opening yourself up to creative possibilities and trusting that as long as you remain grounded in the desires of the people you’re designing for your ideas will evolve into the right solution.’ This idea of being focused on real people is of over-arching importance throughout the entire human centred design process, but is of particular importance during the inspiration phase.

IDEO refers to the target users again in their Design toolkit stating that the inspiration phase is about learning ‘directly from the people you’re designing for as you immerse yourself in their lives and come to deeply understand their needs’. Clearly, understanding the needs of users is of utmost importance in this initial phase, so how do we approach this? According to T.J Cook, CEO of technology company CauseLabs we do this by defining the problem. Cook says that ‘human centred design principles help us examine the needs and behaviours of the people affected by the problem.’

The human centered design process as used at Stanford’s

But could we not get to a solution quicker by moving straight to the ideation and development phases? Not according to the founder of IDEO David Kelley and his brother Tom, in their book ‘Creative Confidence’ the brothers make it clear that framing your design challenge is of utmost importance to the design process. They advise to “step back to make sure you have unearthed the correct question, before starting to search for solutions.” Marc Stickdorn the author of ‘This is Service Design Thinking’ agrees with this sentiment, saying that ‘it is not about trying to find the solution immediately — it is about finding the problem first!’.

Gabe Kleinman who works in Special Projects, Social Impact and Partnerships at tells a story on IDEO futures podcast relating to this. He says that “People want the site to be more navigable. And so they’ll say we want better search. But maybe that’s not what they need. They just need better discoverability and that doesn’t mean a better search bar.” This story illustrates the idea of thinking beyond the initial problem in order to uncover the actual deeper problems that the user faces, even if they themselves do not recognise the problem.

Explaining IDEO’s method

In this section I will now explain a six-step tool to frame your design challenge, as adapted from IDEO, I will be using a previous group project I completed at my grad school Hyper Island as an example. You should allow around ninety minutes to complete this exercise, ensure you have a pen and paper to hand, and that all of your design team is present.

  1. Write down the problem you are trying to solve. It should be short and easy to remember, a single sentence that conveys what you want to do. e.g. Make people less stressed.
  2. Now try phrasing this as a design question. This can set you and your team up to be solution oriented and to generate loads of ideas along the way. e.g. How might we reduce stress?
  3. State the ultimate impact you’re trying to have. e.g. eliminate all unnecessary stress.
  4. What are some possible solutions to your problems? If you can come up with 3–5 possible solutions in just a few minutes, you’re likely on the right track. But remember to think broadly, and allow for surprising outcomes. e.g. urban garden.
  5. Finally, write down some of the context and constraints that you’re facing. They could be geographical, technological, time-based, or have to do with the population you’re trying to reach. e.g. stress in cities, commuting = stress.
  6. Does your original question need a tweak? Try it again. It may seem repetitive, but the right question is key to arriving at a good solution. e.g. How might we create an environment to reduce stress amongst urban workers?
Watch a video of how to use the six-step tool to frame your design challenge

I have now properly framed my design challenge and I can now go and do some design! This particular project that I used as an example culminated in an idea to introduce a modernised and re-designed bus stop and way finding system in Manchester. Complete the six steps above and take multiple passes to make sure that your question drives at impact, gives you a starting place, but still is broad enough to allow for a great variety of creative answers.

Digital Experience Design

Thoughts, ideas and visions of Experience Design fanatics from @Hyperisland and industry friends

Thomas Anderson

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Junior UX Designer at the BBC / Hyper Island Alumni.

Digital Experience Design

Thoughts, ideas and visions of Experience Design fanatics from @Hyperisland and industry friends