A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking : Define the Design Challenge

Define the Design Challenge

Now that you have gathered data from your customer interviews and observations (i.e., what they need and want, their pain points, how they feel, think, and how they behave in their natural environment), you're now ready to bring clarity and focus to the design space. 

Essentially, in the Design mode, you're unpacking, analyzing, and synthesizing your findings from the Empathize mode, to create a meaningful and actionable problem statement, which is basically your point-of-view (POV). Ultimately, by formulating your POV, you'll be able to kick-start your design project.

What Exactly is a Problem Statement/Point of View in Design Thinking?

Your POV is defined as follows -  It is “the explicit expression of the problem you are striving to address.” 

Your POV will steer you toward the right challenge to address, based on the insights you've garnered from your user research. 

“More than simply defining the problem, your Point of View is a unique design vision that is framed by your specific users. Understanding the meaningful challenge at hand, and the user insights you can leverage, is fundamental to creating a successful solution.”  – d.school, Bootcamp Bootleg

A Good Problem Statement embodies the following characteristics

  • It is human-centered and is framed with a strong focus on your users, the insights, and their needs.
  • It is actionable - (e.g., it might be useful to begin your problem statement with verbs such as ("create", “adapt”, or “define”).
  • It focuses and provides the right scope to solve your design challenge.
  • It should be broad enough to encourage creative freedom for your team and prompt innovation. However, it should be narrow enough so you can focus on efficient and practical solutions that meet your customers' needs.

You may exploit the POV Matlib design technique to formulate your problem statement. You'll need to ensure that you integrate the following components (the user, users' needs, and surprising insights) to define your POV. You'll want to frame your statement like this:

“[USER] needs to [USER’S NEED] because [SURPRISING INSIGHT]” - Standford d.school.

For example,  we synthesize the following POV from the data we've gathered about Tom, an obese person who suffers from social isolation and loneliness and uses food for comfort. He also feels judged by his social contacts and desires a sense of support from his community.

“An obese person with a poor body image needs to feel more socially accepted when engaging in physical activities and healthful eating because in their world social isolation and lack of support is more dangerous than the health risks of obesity.” 

In the above example, you're driven to take action right? Note that defining your problem statement/POV is an iterative process and as such, it can be revisited and reformulated many times. 

How to Define your Problem Statement?

As mentioned earlier, you'll need to define an actionable and meaningful problem statement. Although this process may seem daunting, there are a number of well-known and trustworthy creative techniques, which can be leveraged to interpret your findings and observations from the Empathize Mode.

Space Saturation and Group 

According to the Standford d.school,  space saturation helps you to:

“unpack thoughts and experiences into tangible and visual pieces of information that you surround yourself with to inform and inspire the design team. You group these findings to explore what themes and patterns emerge, and strive to move toward identifying meaningful needs of people and insights that will inform your design solutions.”

By exploiting this method, you're gathering and visually presenting all your findings from the empathize phase in one space. In this process, you will saturate a wall, whiteboard, or large piece of paper with post-its and images from your user research. To synthesize your data, you'll need to organize the post-its and images into groups of similar/related patterns. You'll further be able to develop deeper insights and connect the dots, which will further help you to define your design problem and create solutions that meet your customers' needs. 

How Might We Questions

You can ask how might we? questions to refine and rewrite your problem statement. 

So considering your problem statement for an obese person Tom, we could ask the following questions. 

  1. How might we make Tom feel better about himself?
  2. How might we make Tom feel supported by his peers?
  3. How might we improve Tom's self-image?
  4. How might we provide a non-judgemental and joyful experience for Tom?
  5. How might we encourage Tom to be consistent with his healthful lifestyle practices?

These how-might-we questions will be helpful to transition you to the Ideate stage where you'll start looking for innovative solutions to help your customers. 

The Five Whys Technique

The five whys technique is a great tool to exploit when trying to determine the root cause of a problem. Let's say your findings also reflect that Tom is struggling with overeating. We'll need to drill down into source/s for his overeating and unhealthy practices so we help him. Therefore, we could ask the following questions. 

  1. Why is Tom overeating? He overeats when he is stressed.
  2. Why is he stressed? He has a poor self-image.
  3. Why does He have a poor self-image? he doesn't like the way he looks. He feels ashamed of himself.
  4. Why does he feel ashamed of himself? He lacks self-confidence and feels judged.
  5. Why does he feel judged? Tom experiences self-judgment and experiences judgment from others with respect to his overweight. People watch what he eats and ridicule him for consuming “unhealthy” snacks.

In this case, the root cause of Tom's overeating can be associated with judgment namely (self-judgment and judgment from others). Thus, our final problem statement could look like this:

Obese people need judgment-free and peer-supportive interventions to promote more healthful eating habits. 

What Happens Next?

Now that you have defined a well-scoped and meaningful problem statement, you will transition to the ideate mode to develop innovative solutions to address your design challenge. To generate as many compelling ideas as possible, feel free to exploit the how-might we technique. You'll notice that as you go through the phases of design thinking, that the process is very iterative and you'll constantly revisit your problem statement to ensure you're moving on the right track. 

Additional Readings

  1. https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/stage-two-design-thinking-define-the-problem/
  2. http://web.stanford.edu/~mshanks/MichaelShanks/files/509554.pdf
  3. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/stage-2-in-the-design-thinking-process-define-the-problem-and-interpret-the-results
  4. https://s3.xopic.de/openhpi-public/courses/1NcWQVnyTA0dLYw9kHLs4e/rtfiles/35m0Q8qXYjvHO7FHuwgVgg/bootcampbootleg2010.pdf


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A Beginner's Guide to Design Thinking
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Kadian Davis-Owusu (PhD)
Kadian has a background in Computer Science and pursued her PhD and post-doctoral studies in the fields of Design for Social Interaction and Design for Health. She has taught a number of interaction design courses at the university level including the University of the West Indies, the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean (UCC) in Jamaica, and the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. Kadian also serves as the Founder and Lead UX Designer for TeachSomebody and is the host of the ExpertsConnect video podcast. In this function, Kadian serves to bridge the learning gap by delivering high-quality content tailored to meet your learning needs. Moreover, through expert collaboration, top-quality experts are equipped with a unique channel to create public awareness and establish thought leadership in their related domains.... Show more