How to Frame a Design Problem

Don’t start designing quite yet, Da Vinci.

Christian Beck
Jul 6, 2018 · 6 min read

Designers are notorious for making mountains out of molehills. It goes a little something like this:

PM: “Hey Rockstar Designer, can you redesign this Edit Profile page?”

You: “Why do we need this page?”

PM: “So users can change their preferences for Widget A.”

You: “Why do we need Widget A?

PM: “So people don’t have to do [something] they don’t like to do.”

You: “Why do they need to do that?”

PM: “Because that’s how this industry works.”

You: “Okay, I’m going to design a new product that changes the way the industry works.”


To be fair, this line of dialog is how disruptive products begin. So I’m certainly not advocating against thinking this way. But as an employed designer, you are paid to execute someone else’s vision. You will likely be able to influence part of this vision with small features like Edit pages (as a junior designer), new features (as a senior designer), and new products (as principal or director). But in all those cases, your design work fits into a larger product strategy and business/revenue model.

This is admittedly a tough challenge for designers. We are trained to think outside the box and push boundaries. And if that’s not hard enough, we are disillusioned by the prospect of wicked problems when we are left only getting to design one tiny piece of ambitious solutions.

It‘s hard for designers to think big, but act small.

I hope you all get chances to lead world-changing projects, but in the meantime, your efficacy as a designer will start with your ability to frame design problems and scope them down to a reasonable size. The bright side is that the skills you need to do this will come in handy when you are leading your world-changing projects later in your career.


Challenges

“I like to figure out what’s possible by sketching.”

You and me both. But this is a fast track to solving the wrong problem or simply getting “designer’s block.” I believe good things come out of the act of designing, but only after you’ve framed your work appropriately.

“This problem seems way bigger than anyone realizes.”

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s always bigger than we think. And in fact, your company leaders might even agree with you. But you’ll be tasked with one piece of a solution that could be part of a 5–10 year plan. What seems obvious and attainable now, isn’t always that simple.

If you want to better understand the higher-level strategy, then ask. But when it comes down to your design job, boiling the ocean isn’t going to get you anywhere fast.


Tactics

Framing a design problem typically centers on three things:

  • Business
  • Users
  • Competition

You need to frame a design first by what’s right for the existing business, then what’s most important for the users. Next, you use competition to inspire solutions that will solve these needs in unique ways.

Define the business model up front

How does your company or client make money? What is their value prop or competitive edge? What’s the history behind the business and how it ended up where it is today?

These types of questions help ensure you don’t go off the rails expanding the scope of the problem you’re trying to solve beyond what the business is equipped to handle. Imagine you’re tasked with making the process of ordering food at a restaurant more pleasurable, and your solution is to make it all digital. You might be surprised to find resistance because the restaurant makes more money upselling customers on drinks and desserts. Understanding revenue models like this up front will help you scope your problem area.

Prioritize user needs

There are literally hundreds of articles about conducting user research. But this is a tiny tactic and there is no way I will provide research any justice. Instead, my advice here is about how you handle that research. In cases where you have a research team, you may have too much information. In other cases, you may have customer support tickets. In others, you may simply have to do your own guerrilla research.

But the results can be overwhelming. Just like a to-do list, you need to have focus. You may get 20 key themes to account for but that’s more than any designer can focus on. Instead, I draw a line after about 3–5 items and ignore the rest. Why? Well if you’re designing a small feature, a user will only really have one key task they are trying to accomplish. Your user’s focus is your design focus. In the process of designing, you’ll inevitably handle some of the lower priority items. Others, you can handle after getting your “big rocks” in place.

Create a rubric for judging competitors

In other fields, this is called “competitive analysis.” I don’t use that term for designers because it typically references feature and price comparison. For design, you want to find examples of products and services that do what you’re tasked to design and create a general rubric for how to compare them.

Think of this activity like creating a moodboard of interaction patterns. For each exemplar, write down what you think makes the solution successful or not. You can do this by testing other solutions with users, or you can use your own judgment. The goal is that you end up with 10–15 key points about each exemplar.

Next, aggregate these points together using affinity diagramming; group similar points around each other to get a higher-level picture of what a “good” solution will look like, and under what circumstances. For example, you may find that there are three predominant Edit Profile page patterns:

  • Slide-in
  • Full page edit
  • In-line edit

And find there are different groupings of profile fields:

  • Personal info
  • Linked accounts
  • UI preferences

And so on. As you start examining these facets, patterns will emerge (e.g. UI preferences is something you only see when the product has a dashboard). At the end, you’ll have a better picture of what is relevant for your design solution.

Analogous Competitors

You can stop with competitors and end up with enough framework to begin design. But basing your design of existing solutions will create uninspiring solutions. Sure, you aren’t trying to disrupt your company’s business model, but you should still find opportunities for slight tweaks to the original problem. Now that you have a good definition of your business, your user needs, and competitors; it’s time to look outside.

Enter analagous competitors.

These are competitors outside your industry, but share qualities similar to what you’re trying to solve. Using the criteria you established above, find other apps, services, and products that have similar components. Where have you seen creative solutions to profiles in consumer apps? What apps handle form editing well? Great examples of profiles? Etc. This is where you find the gems. And because you’ve framed the problem well, you will be able to apply this inspiration to your design much more effectively.

Storyboard the key workflows

Finally, you are ready to design. But before you start designing your masterpiece, create your “design outline.” For me, this means laying out artboards corresponding to the pages I think I’ll need. For others, I’ve seen simple bulleted list of screens and UI components in a document. As you design, you may remove artboards, or add some later; this is meant to be a starting point. But unlike storyboarding, I don’t bother illustrating or wireframing at this phase. Instead, I simply bullet out what I want to be on each page.

Great design is all about maintaining focus.

You’ve gone from a murky problem statement, to a well-defined problem, and now to a well-framed solution. Laying out pages in this last step helps break down the problem into nicely succinct pieces that will help you maintain your focus. Now that you’re ready to design, it will be easier to prioritize the right work, while avoiding getting overwhelmed.


These are by no means the only ways to frame design problems, but they are simple tactics that have worked for me both as an in-house designer and at an agency. You won’t always have the resources you need, but even when you do, framing design work is no less challenging. Hopefully this has helped provide some simple tactics that keep you from blowing up every design problem, while providing a path to more creative solutions.

When I’m not helping you frame the world’s problems, I’m working on Sketch design tools at UX Power Tools to make you a better, more efficient designer.

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UX Power Tools

A publication for designers, written by designers.

Christian Beck

Written by

By day, executive designer at Innovatemap where I help tech companies design marketable products. By night, co-founder of UX Power Tools.

UX Power Tools

A publication for designers, written by designers.

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