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Problem Framing for Strategic Design

Let’s talk about problem framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned my experience has been that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve. In this post, I’ll deep dive into some problem-framing techniques that can help you get team alignment by creating clarity of what problems they are trying to solve.

Table Of Contents
  1. TL;DR
  2. Problem Framing and Strategic Choices
  3. Problem Framing and the Need of Facilitation
  4. Problem Framing and Why Questions Matter
  5. Finding Problems Worth Solving
  6. Problem Framing and Shared Understanding
  7. Problem Framing and Reframing
  8. The Right Time for Problem Framing
  9. Before Committing to Solve a Problem
  10. Recommended Reading

TL;DR

  • To influence strategy while driving experience vision forward, Designers must engage with stakeholders early and often ensure we’ve got the right framing of the problem space around the three vision-related questions: What are our aspirations? What are our challenges? What will we focus on?
  • It’s tempting to appear decisive by jumping straight to the conclusion and making rapid decisions. But the chances are that those rapid decisions are predictable courses based on existing assumptions and prejudices, and another chance for innovation has escaped.
  • A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all: solve the right problem.
  • Be open to challenging the problem, assumptions, or goals: is the problem statement true? Are there simple self-imposed limitations? Is the solution baked into the problem framing? With whom is the problem located? Are there false trade-offs?
  • Be more aware of your decision biases: solutioneering, treating symptoms, confirming bias, availability bias, anchoring bias, and sunk-cost fallacy (to name a few).
  • Strive to create psychologically safe environments for teams to challenge problems: no one will ask questions or welcome challenges in places where they don’t feel questions will be well-received, nor do they not feel their questions will help the team address real problems.
  • Reframe the Problem: to solve the toughest problems, you need to find better ones to solve! Examine Bright Spots! Where is the problem not? Rethink the Goal! Shift your mindset from Output to Outcomes!

Problem Framing and Strategic Choices

Designers may have naively believed that the user perspective can be provided at one point of the product development lifecycle (e.g., during the project/backlog/sprint planning phase).

In reality, any product that makes in the world is the outcome of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of decisions. Each decision builds upon the other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience (Garrett, J.J, Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“, 2010).

Strategy is a set of choices about winning that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.

“How Strategy Really Works” in Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Lafley, A.G., Martin, R. L., 2013)

Designers must engage with their business stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions they want their products to assume in the industry and their choices to achieve such objectives and positions.

Six Strategic Questions, adapted from "Strategy Blueprint" in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020).
Six Strategic Questions, adapted from “Strategy Blueprint” in Mapping Experiences: A Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams (Kalbach, 2020)

That’s why it is essential that designers engage with stakeholders early and often to make sure we’ve got the right framing of the problem space around the three vision-related questions (as per the Six Strategic Questions illustration above):

  • What are our aspirations?
  • What are our challenges?
  • What will we focus on?

Problem Framing and the Need of Facilitation

In my experience, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplating and exploring the problem space a little longer.

It’s tempting to appear decisive by jumping straight to the conclusion and making rapid decisions. But the chances are that those rapid decisions are predictable courses based on existing assumptions and prejudices, and that another chance for innovation as escaped.

Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills (2017)

When your team can’t agree on a solution, it’s probably a good time to take a step back and align on the problem you are solving for. I think designers should facilitate the discussions and help others raise awareness around the creative and problem-solving process instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping \ too quickly into solutions.

photo of people near wooden table
Learn more about how to become a skilled facilitator in Strategy and the Need of Facilitation (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Solve Better Problems with Better Framing

The way you frame the problem determines which solutions you come up with (Wedelll-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem?, 2020)

The art of designing solutions starts with the frame. Where you draw the boundaries of an investigation will determine — in large part — what your conclusions will be and what kind of process you’ll use to get there.

Neumeier, M., Metaskills: Five talents for the future of work (2013)

Are there any universal technique for drawing the edges of a problem? Luckily, there are. Here’s a short course in the art of framing (Neumeier, M., Metaskills: Five talents for the future of work, 2013):

  1. View the problem from multiple angles. Like it or not, we all get stuck in our own belief systems. The easiest way to get free is to look a the problem from three positions: our own viewpoint (known as first position), other people’s viewpoints (known as second position), and the viewpoint from a higher-order system (known as metaposition).
  2. Develop a problem statement. Brevity and simplicity are key!
  3. List the knowns and unknowns. What are the known parameters of the problem? Can you visualise and name the parts? What are the relationships between the parts? What is the nature of the problem? Is it a simple problem? A complex problem? A structural problem? A communication problem? What remedies have been attempted in the past, and what they failed? Why bother solving the problem in the first place?
  4. Change the frame. What happens when you make the frame bigger or smaller? Or even swap it for another one?
  5. Make a simple model. Constructing a model is a practical way of visualising the key elements of a problem. Statistician George Box once said, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

In practice, it starts with someone asking “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” The resulting statement — ideally written
down — is your first framing of the problem (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., What’s Your Problem?, 2020).

That said, there are a few things you need to be aware of while writing your problem statement.

The Problem With Problem Statements

In the effort to bring clarity and shared understanding of what problems we are trying to solve, I’ve seen many organizations try to be more systematic and adopt artifacts like Problem Statements.

Problem statements are widely used by most businesses and organizations to execute process improvement projects. A simple and well-defined problem statement will be used by the project team to understand the problem and work toward developing a solution. It will also provide management with specific insights into the problem so that they can make appropriate project-approving decisions. As such, it is crucial for the problem statement to be clear and unambiguous (Annamalai, Nagappan; Kamaruddin, Shahrul; Azid, Ishak Abdul; Yeoh, TS, 2013).

The way you state your problems frame your decisions. It determines the alternatives you consider and the way you evaluate them. Posing the right problem drives everything else.

“Problem” in Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions, Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (2015)

The problem with problem statements (pun intended) that I’ve found is that there are many thinking traps and decision biases that stakeholders and team members might not even be aware of.

The most classic is to bake the solution into the problem statement. This has been illustrated really well by Marc Rettig:

Design a Vase
Design a better way for young families to enjoy flowers in their home

Rettig, M., (2010) “Design a Vase”, in An evening of conversation about Design, Interaction, Work and Life, May 25th, 2010, IxDA Gathering, 399, Pu DianRoad, Pudong New District, Shanghai, 200122, P.R. China

In another example, a company with a leadership development issue brainstormed “how can we more effectively use 360-degree feedback?” That’s a solution masquerading as a question, so they completely missed alternative methods. When the company asked “how can we create powerful leaders”? instead, this more abstract question opened up a wider range of possible solutions. Of course, this then needed to be deconstructed into smaller and more solvable problems (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020).

Problem Statements and Decision Biases

In part, we fail to make good decisions because of glitches in our thinking , including deep-seated biases that produce troubling lapses in logic. Each of us fall prey to these glitches to some degree, no matter how logical or open-minded we believe ourselves to be (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017).

Cognitive Bias Codex
Cognitive Bias Codex in Every Single Cognitive Bias in One Infographic (Desjardins, J., 2021)

One way to avoid such traps is — obviously — beware of such biases and keep asking questions.

With regards to biases, here are a few to be aware of (Hammond, et al. The Hidden Traps in Decision Making, 2013):

  • The Anchoring Trap lead us to give disproportionate weight to the first information we receive.
  • The Status-quo Trap biases us towards maintaining the current situation – even when better alternatives exist.
  • The Sunk-Cost Trap inclines us to make choices in the way that justifies past choices, even when these were mistakes.
  • The Confirming-Evidence Trap leads us to seek out information supporting an existing predilection and to discount opposing information.
  • The Framing Trap occurs when we misstate a problem, undermining the entire decision-making process.
  • The Overconfidence Trap makes us overestimate the accuracy of our forecasts.
  • The Prudence Trap leads us to be overcautious when we make estimates about uncertain events.
  • The Recallability Trap prompts us to give undue weight to recent, dramatic events.

With these biases in mind, you should tigger team discussions before they make any big decision (Kahneman, D., Lovallo, D., & Sibony, O., “The Big Idea: Before You Make That Big Decision” in HBR’s 10 must reads on making smart decisions, 2013).

banking business checklist commerce
Learn more about how to keep your biases in check in Facilitating Good Decisions (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Sizing up the Problem

A critical initial step of decision making is to determine the significance of the decision at hand (Berkun, S., Making things happen: Mastering project management, 2008):

  • What problem is at the core of the decision? Decisions often arise in response to new information, and the initial way the issue is raised focuses on the acute and narrow aspects of the problem? It’s important to ask probing questions. For example: the problem might be defined initially as “we don’t have time to fix all 50 known bugs we’ve found”, but the real issue is probably “we have no criteria for how to triage bugs.” Redefining the decision (or problem reframing) into a more useful form improves decision quality. Being calm in response to a seemingly urgent issue helps make this happen. Ask questions like “What is the cause o this problem? It is isolated or will it impact other areas. Whose problem is it? Which goals in the vision doesn’t it put at risk? Did we already make this decision in he space, if so, do we have good reasons to reconsider now?”
  • How long will this decision impact the project? How deep will the impact be? A big decision (such as the direction of the vision) will impact the entire project. A small decision (such as what time to have a meeting or what the agenda should be) will impact a small number of people in a limited way. If it’s a long-term decision (and the impact is big) patience and rigor are required. It’s a short-term decision with shallow impact, go for speed and clarity, based on a clear sense of the strategic decision made in the vision.
  • If you’re wrong, what the impact/cost? What other decisions will be impacted? If the impact is small or negligible. There isn’t much to lose. However, this doesn’t mean you short start flipping coins. For aspects of the project such as usability or reliability, quality comes from many small decisions being aligned with each other. The phrase “death by a thousand cuts” comes from this situation, whether it’s not a one big mistake that gets us: it’s the many tiny ones. So you must as least consider whether the choice is trully isolated. If it isn’t, it’s best to try and make several choices at once.
  • What is the window of opportunity? If you wait to make the decision, it can be made for you – routes will close and options will go away. In this universe, big decisions don’t necessarily come with greater amounts of time to make them. Sometimes, you have to make tough strategic decisions quickly because of the limited window of opportunity. Sometimes, the speed of making a decision is more important than the quality of the decision itself (specially in competitive environments). Quick action can shift what in military terminology is called “the burden of uncertainty”: by taking early action, you force the competitor (or partner) to respond.
  • Have we made this kind of decision before? This is the arrogance test. If someone where to put you in an emergency room and asked you to perform heart bypass surgery, how confident would you be? There is no shame in admitting arrogance: it generally takes courage to do so. There will be times when you have no idea how to do something. Don’t hide it or let anyone else hide it. Instead, identify that you think the team, or yourself, is inexperienced with this kind of choice and needs outside help (or more time). If a leaders admits ignorance, she makes it OK for everyone else to do the same.
  • Who has the expert decision? Is this really my decision? Just because someone asks you to decide something doesn’t mean you are the best person to make the call. You are better at some decision than others, so don’t relay on your own decision making limitations. Never be afraid to pick up the phone and call the people who know more than you about an issue. At leas ask for their consultation and bring them into the discussion. Consider delegating the choice entirely to them: ask whether they think it’s their call to make or yours.
  • Whose approval do we need? Whose feedback do we want/need before we decide? The larger the organization, the ore overhead costs there are around decisions. A trivial decision can become complex when the politics of stakeholders come into play (check chapter 16). A good test of your authority is how often trivial decisions require approvals or the formation of committees. The more processes there are around decisions, the more you must work through influence rather than decree.. There are political costs to decision that have nothing to do with technology, business, or customer considerations, and the impact of a decision includes them.

To trigger the important conversations that will help frame a problem better, start with these four (Berger, W., “Part II: Questions to Spark Creativity” in The Book of Beautiful Questions, 2019):

  • Why does this problem matter? Use research to clarify what is at stake, who is affected and how. Consider significance both overal and future ramifications.
  • Why does the problem exist? Try to get to the root causes that puts this problem into motion.
  • Why it hasn’t been solved already? This will make clear the obstacles you are up against (and may uncover past efforts that hold lessons).
  • Why might that change now? What are the conditions and dynamics that might ap ring about a desired change?

Solving the Right Problem

It’s easy to solve the wrong problems. Good design relentlessly questions assumptions, reframing the design problem to be solved.

A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all: solve the correct problem.

Norman, Donald A. (2013). The design of everyday things. London, England: MIT Press.
Stop Doing What You're Told

Stop Doing What You’re Told!

Become more aware of Decision Biases while Problem Framing with Stephen P Anderson

Before applying any specific reframing strategies, it’s a good practice to start with a review of the problem statement. Here are some questions that can help you do that (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem?, 2020):

  • Is the statement true?
  • Are there simple self-imposed limitations?
  • Is a solution baked into the problem framing?
  • Is the problem clear?
  • With whom is the problem located?
  • Are there strong emotions?
  • Are there false trade-offs?

If you still are not sure if you hitting the right target (or the questions above may be a bit too direct to ask your stakeholders), here are a few suggestions to help you zero-in on the best direction (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020):

  • Real Problem: do we really know the underlying problem we want to solve? Are we solving the root cause of the problem?
  • Real Business: what business are we really in? Who are our real competitors? What new technology can make us irrelevant?
  • Insights: what data would help reframe the question or provide insights into better solutions?
  • Variations: if your question implies that all customers/situations are treated the same, ask, “How can we address exceptions or rare cases in a different way?”
  • Observation: instead of asking our customers what they want, how can we observe them?

Problem Framing and Why Questions Matter

As a leader or strategist, it’s your job to ask the right questions, to help teams frame the challenge they’re designing for, and make sure they’re considering the end user and their needs. “Not only does it stop you from assuming you have to have the answer, it leaves the space for the individual or team you’re working with to express their own creativity and their own innovation,” (Brown, T., & Howard, D. S. G., Why leadership is not about having all the answers, 2019)

Goldilocks principle of Problem Framing by Tim Brown (IDEO)
Goldilocks principle—allow enough scope for unexpected, creative exploration, while defining a space that’s manageable to explore (Brown, T., & Howard, D. S. G., Why leadership is not about having all the answers, 2019)

You can also use questions to encourage your teams to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. “The thing that teams are often the least good at is knowing how ambitious to be, or even knowing where to look. What you do have as a leader is perspective. So if you’re thoughtful and can offer the right kinds of questions, then you can help teams look in the right place, and offer them the right perspective. And that’s a very powerful form of leadership.” (Brown, T., & Howard, D. S. G., Why leadership is not about having all the answers, 2019)

When people frame their strategic exploration as questions rather than as concerns or problems, a conversation begins where everyone can learn something new together, rather than having the normal stale debates over issues

Brown, J., & Isaacs, D., The world cafe: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter (2005)

From that perspective, I find it incredibly important that designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinkingexplore multiple solutions, and — probably the most critical — help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).

Strategic Collaboration: Opening (Divergent) versus Exploring (Emergent) versus Closing (Convergent)
A great way to know what questions are more appropriate in any particular situation is to be aware of what phase of the ideation process we are in: divergent, emergent, or convergent (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, 2010)

Following a pattern that leads with divergent thinking and concludes with convergent thinking helps you manage those tangents. Tangents can feel frustrating, but good tangents are one of the best things that come out of meetings. Good, novel ideas come from diverse opinions and experience. Going off on tangents is a way to get to those ideas. They won’t all be great ideas, but a few of them could be better than what you might come up with working alone (Hoffman, K. M. Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. 2018).

Knowing when the team should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.

Divergent Thinking and Increasing Abstraction

While facilitating divergent thinking, remind people to be open-minded. Divergent activities include making lists, having open-ended discussion, and collecting perspectives. During divergent thinking, it’s the facilitator’s job to remind the group to suspend judgment. It’s OK to allow discomfort in the group and have conflict that goes unresolved. Ideas may contradict each other, but the more ideas, the better. Get the obvious ideas out of the way and move onto the ones that require a little more effort (Hoffman, K. M. Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. 2018).

When your problem statement is overly specific or implies a particular solution or area of expertise, increasing abstraction will help you expand your thinking to increase the range of possibilities. Here are a few questions to trigger the discussion that will lead to an increased level of abstraction (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020):

  • Analogy: what is this like? Who else has solved a problem like this?
  • Result: what does this make possible? What is the desired outcome?
  • Concern Reframe: how can we take a progress-blocking statement and convert it into a questions that starts with “How can we…?”
  • Stretch: Are our problem statement criteria stretched enough? Are we shooting for a high enough goal?
  • Hypernym: How can we replace a word in the problem statement with a less specific instance of the one originally chosen?

Convergent Thinking and Reducing Abstraction

At some point, the facilitator should turn the boat around and switch the focus to convergence. The facilitator should help the group decide if one tangent is better than another. Where divergent thinking is about being OK with disagreement, convergent thinking is about eliminating excess, or the least likely stuff to succeed. Once the corner has been turned, the facilitator helps the group summarize the essence of each approach to decide what’s worth keeping and how to act upon it (Hoffman, K. M. Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. 2018).

When your problem statement is overly large, broad, or abstract, reducing abstraction (or convergent thinking) will help you bring you down to earth. Here are a few approaches geared toward making questions more more specific when they are too broad (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020):

  • Leverage: what is the one factor that will have the greatest impact? What give us the greatest leverage in solving this problem?
  • Deconstruct: what are the part or components of this? What are the steps of the process? What are the different segments?
  • Reduce: how might lowering the goals and expectations give us a better result or create new opportunities for growth? How can implication increase usability and accessibility?
  • Eliminate: how can this be eliminated? Instead of adding features, what features can you remove?
  • Hyponym: is there a more specific instance of a word that can replace the one originally chosen?

We will come back to some of these techniques when we talk about problem framing and creating choices.

turned on pendant lamp

Strategy, Facilitation and the Art of Asking Questions

Learn more about how to steer a conversation by asking the right kinds of questions (Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com)

Finding Problems Worth Solving

Entrepreneurs are always coming up with ideas. While some people say “ideas are easy,” that’s not entirely true. Coming up with an idea is hard. Coming up with a good idea is harder. Coming up with an idea that you go out and validate to the point where it makes sense to build something is really, really hard (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

Problem (or idea) discovery often starts with listening. After all, people love to complain about their problems. But take their complaining with a grain of salt. You need to listen actively, almost aggressively, for the nugget of truth or the underlying pattern. Big, lucrative startups are often the result of wildly audacious solutions to problems people didn’t realize they had.

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics (2013)

The goal of the problem finding is to decide whether the problem is painful enough for enough people and to learn how they are currently trying to solve it. Let’s break down what that means (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013):

  • The problem is painful enough. People are full of inertia. You want them to act, and you want them to do so in a way that helps your business. This requires enough discomfort with their situation that they actually do what you want–signing up, paying your price, etc.
  • Enough people care. Solving a problem for one person is called consulting. You need an addressable market. Marketers want audiences that are homogeneous within (that is, members of the segment have things in common to which you can appeal) and heterogeneous between (that is, you can segment and target each market segment in a focused manner with a tailored message).
  • They’re already trying to solve it. If the problem is real and known, people are dealing with it somehow. Maybe they’re doing something manually, because they don’t have a better way. The current solution, whatever it is, will be your biggest competitor at first, because it’s the path of least resistance for people.

Note that in some cases, your market won’t know it has a problem. Before the Walkman, the minivan, or the tablet computer, people didn’t know they had a need–indeed, Apple’s ill-fated Newton a decade before the iPad showed that the need didn’t exist. In this case, rather than just testing for a problem people know they have, you’re also interested in what it takes to make them aware of the problem. If you’re going to have to “plow the snow” in your market, you want to know how much effort it will be so you can factor that into your business models (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

Conducting Problem Interviews

While the goal of a problem interview is always the same — decide if you have enough information and confidence to move to the next stage — divergent and convergent.

Convergent Interviews

In a convergent problem interview, you’re zeroing in on specifics — and while you want interviewees to speak freely, and the interviews aren’t heavily structured — you’re not on a fishing expedition with no idea what you’re fishing for (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

A convergent problem interview gives you a clear course of action at the risk of focusing too narrowly on the problems that you think matter, rather than freeing interviewees to identify other problems that may be more important to them.

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics (2013)

For example, you might steer subjects back to your line of questioning at the expense of having them reveal an unexpected adjacent market or need (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

Divergent Interviews

On the other hand, a divergent problem interview is much more speculative, intended to broaden your search for something useful you might go build. In this type of problem interview, you’re discussing a big problem space (healthcare, task management, transportation, booking a vacation, etc.) with interviewees, and letting them tell you what problems they have. You’re not suggesting problems and asking them to rank them. You probably have a problem or two that you’re looking to identify, and you’ll measure the success of the interviews, in part, by how often interviewees mention those problems without you having done so first (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

The risk with a divergent problem interview is that you venture too broadly on too many issues and never get interviewees to focus.

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics (2013)

Divergent problem interviews run the risk of giving you too many problems, or not enough similar problems, and no clarity on what to do next (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

Whether you’re running a convergent or divergent problem interview, I recommend running a structured interview. The type that — in my experience — provide the most significant amount and most profound set of insights are contextual inquiries.

Contextual Inquiries

People can say what they do in general terms and can identify critical problems; they can say what makes them angry with the tools they use. But they usually cannot provide day-to-day details about what they do. They cannot describe inner motivations such as the need to express a particular identity or to feel connected with people they care about. They are likely to forget about the workarounds they had to invent to overcome problems in their current products. This low-level detail of everyday practice is critical to design for life (Holtzblatt, K., & Beyer, H., Contextual Design: Design for Life, 2016).

Contextual Inquiry reveals unconscious and tacit aspects of life. It guides designers in going out into the field and talking with people about their work and life while observing them.

Holtzblatt, K., & Beyer, H., Contextual Design: Design for Life (2016)

If designers watch people while they engage in their activities, then people do not have to articulate their practices. If they do blow-by-blow retrospective accounts of things that happened in the recent past, people can stick with the details of specific cases using artifacts and reenactments to remind them of what happened.

Contextual Inquiry immerses designers in the user’s whole life—including those aspects which the user doesn’t know how to articulate (Holtzblatt, K., & Beyer, H., Contextual Design: Design for Life, 2016).

Empathy about understanding how another person thinks—what’s going on inside her head and heart. And most importantly, it’s about acknowledging her reasoning and emotions as valid, even if they differ from your own understanding.

Young, I., Practical Empathy: For Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work (2019)

If you want to get started with interviewing customers from a task/job analysis, you should probably think of a script upfront to guide you through your interview (what user researchers call a research protocol). You can take a look at the interview protocol that I’ve shared with my students at Köln International School of Design, inspired on the work of my friends David Aurelio and Chauncey Wilson.

You can learn more about how to conduct Contextual Inquiries by checking my lecture on Discovery Mode for the MA Integrated Design at Köln International School of Design: 

Designing Interactions / Experiences: Discovery "Mode"
Learn more about how to conduct Contextual Inquiries in my lecture on Discovery Mode for the MA Integrated Design at Köln International School of Design

How Do I know If the Problem Is Really Painful Enough?

While the data you’ve collected to this point is qualitative, there are ways of helping you quantify that data to make an informed decision on whether you want to move forward or not. Ultimately, the One Metric That Matters here is pain. Specifically, your interviewees’ pain as it pertains to the problems you’ve shared with them. So how can you measure pain (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

A simple approach is to score your problem interviews. This is not perfectly scientific; your scoring will be somewhat arbitrary, but if you have someone assisting you during the interviews and taking good notes it should be possible to score things consistently and get value out of this exercise.

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics (2013)

Qualitatively Scoring How Painful the Problem Is

There are a few criteria you can score against based on the questions you’ve asked in a convergent problem interview. Each answer has a weight; by adding the results up, you’ll have a sense of where you stand. After completing each interview, ask yourself the following questions (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013):

1. Did the interviewee successfully rank the problems you presented?
YesSort ofNo
The Interviewee ranked the problems with strong interview (irrespective of the ranking)They couldn’t decide which problem was really painful, but they were still really interested in the problemThey struggled with this, or they spent more time talking about other problems they have.
10 points5 points0 points
ranking of problems

Even in a convergent problem interview where you’ve focused on a specific set of problems, the interview is open-ended enough to allow interviewees to discuss other issues. That’s completely fine and is extremely important. There’s nothing that says the problems you’ve presented are the right ones–that’s precisely what you’re trying to measure and justify. So stay open-minded throughout the process. For the purposes of scoring the interview and measuring pain, a bad score means the interview is a “failure” — the interviewee’s pain with the problems you’re considering isn’t substantial enough if she spends all her time talking about other problems she has. A failed interview is OK; it may lead you to something even more interesting and save you a lot of heartaches (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

From a product discovery perspective, “failing” at this stage is completely normal: you’ve learned from talking to real users that — while you thought you had a great idea of a solution — maybe you were jumping too quickly into the solution without understanding the problem behind it.

2. Is the interviewee actively trying to solve the problem now or have they done so in the past?
YesSort ofNo
They are trying to solve the problem with Excel and fax machines. You may have struck gold.They spend a bit of time fixing the problem, but just considers it the price of doing their job. They are not trying to fix it.They don’t really spend time tackling the problem, and is OK with the status quo. It’s not a big problem.
10 points5 points0 points
trying to solve the problem

The more effort the interviewee has put into trying to solve the problems you’re discussing, the better.

3. Was the interviewee engaged and focused throughout the interview?
YesSort ofNo
They were hanging on your every word, finishing your sentences, and ignoring their smartphone.They were interested, but showed distraction or didn’t contribute comments unless you actively solicited them.They tuned out, looked at their phone, cut the meeting short, or generally seemed entirely detached — like they were doing you a favour by meeting with you.
8 points4 points0 points
level of engagement

Ideally, your interviewees were completely engaged in the process: listening, talking (being animated is a good thing), leaning forward, and so on. After enough interviews, you’ll know the difference between someone who’s focused and engaged, and someone who is not.

The point totals for this question are lower than the previous two. For one, engagement in an interview is harder to measure; it’s more subjective than the other questions. We also don’t want to weigh engagement in the interview as heavily — it’s just not as necessary. Someone may seem somewhat disengaged but has spent the last five years trying to solve the problems you’re discussing. That’s someone with a lot of pain . . . maybe they are just easily distracted.

4. Did the interviewee agree to a follow-up meeting/interview (where you’ll present a solution)?
Yes, without being asked toYes, when you asked them toNo
They are defining the solution “yesterday.”They are OK with scheduling another meeting, but suddenly their calendar is booked for the next month or so.You both realize there is no point showing them anything in terms of a solution.
8 points4 points0 points
interest in a solution

The goal of the problem interview is to discover a problem painful enough that you know people want it solved. And ideally, the people you’re speaking to are begging you for the solution. The next step in the process is the solution interview, so if you get there with people that’s a good sign.

5. Did the interviewee offer to refer others to you for interview?
Yes, without being asked toYes, when you asked them toNo
They actively suggested people you should talk to without being asked.They suggested others at the end, in response to your question.They couldn’t recommend people you should speak with.
8 points4 points0 points
ranking of problems

At the end of every interview, you should be asking for referrals to other interviewees. There’s a good chance the people your subjects recommend are similar in demographics and share the same problems.

Perhaps more importantly at this stage, you want to see if the subjects are willing to help further by referring people in their network. This clearly indicates that they don’t feel sheepish about introducing you and think you’ll make them look smarter. They likely won’t suggest others you might speak with if they found you annoying.

6. Did the interviewee offer to pay you immediately for the solution?
Yes, without being asked toYes, when you asked them toNo
They offered to pay you for the product without being asked, and named a price.They offered to pay you for the product.They didn’t offer to by and use it..
3 points1 points0 points
willingness to pay

Although having someone offer you money is more likely during the
solution interviews (when you’re actually walking through the solution with people), this is still a good “gut check” moment. And certainly, it’s a bonus if people are reaching for their wallets.

That said, you have to take their willingness to pay with a grain of salt for two reason:

  • Job Performer versus Buyer Persona. The people you’re talking to might not be the decider when it comes to purchasing decisions. Conversely, the person you might be talking to may be interested in the solution, but they might not be the job performer and — therefore — might not have a good sense of how painful the problem really is.
  • Attitude versus Behaviour. Research shows that there is a very weak relationship between attitude and behavior.

Humans are very bad at predicting their future behaviour. Instead, explore people’s current behaviour, which is the best predictor of future behaviour

Sharon, T., Validating Product Ideas (2016)

So, a better way to predict future behavior is to observe their current behavior. This is why Contextual Inquiries provide the greatest amount of insights into how painful a problem really is!

Calculating the Scores

A score of 31 or higher is a good score. Anything under is not. Try scoring all the interviews, and see how many have a good score. This is a decent indication of whether you’re onto something or not with the problems you want to solve. Then ask yourself what makes the good-score interviews different from the bad-score ones. Maybe you’ve identified a market segment, you have better results when you dress well, or you shouldn’t do interviews in a coffee shop. Everything is an experiment you can learn from (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

You can also sum up the rankings for the problems that you presented. If you presented three problems, which one had the most first-place rankings? That’s where you’ll want to dig in further and start proposing solutions (during solution interviews). The best-case scenario is very high interview scores within a subsection of interviewees where those interviewees all had the same (or very similar) rankings of the problems. That should give you more confidence that you’ve found the right problem and the right market (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

How are People Solving the Problem Now?

One of the telltale signs that a problem is worth solving is when a lot of people are already trying to solve it or have tried to do so in the past (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

People will go to amazing lengths to solve really painful problems that matter to them. Typically, they’re using another product that wasn’t meant to solve their problem, but it’s “good enough,” or they’ve built something themselves.

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics (2013)

Even though you’re doing qualitative interviews, you can still crunch some numbers afterward (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013):

  • How many people aren’t trying to solve the problem at all? If people haven’t really made an attempt to solve the problem, you have to be very cautious about moving forward. You’ll have to make them aware of the problem in the first place.
  • How many volunteer a solution that’s “good enough”? You’ll spend more time on solutions when you do solution interviews, but startups regularly underestimate the power of “good enough.” Mismatched socks are a universal problem nobody’s getting rich fixing.

Too often, idealistic startups underestimate a market’s inertia. They attack market leaders with features, functionality, and strategies that aren’t meaningful enough to customers. Their MVP has too much “minimum” to provoke a change. They assume that what they’re doing–whether it’s a slicker UI, simpler system, social functionality, or something else–is an obvious win. Then “good enough” bites them in the ass (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

Are there Enough People Who Care About This Problem?

If you find a problem that’s painful enough for people, the next step is to understand the market size and potential. Remember, one customer isn’t a market, and you have to be careful about solving a problem that too few people genuinely care about (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

If you’re trying to estimate the size of a market, it’s a good idea to do both a top-down and a bottom-up analysis, and compare the results. This helps to check your math. A top-down analysis starts with a big number and breaks it into smaller parts. A bottom-up one does the reverse.

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics (2013)

Consider, for example, a restaurant in New York City (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013):

  • A top-down model would look at the total money people spend dining out in the US, then the percentage of that in New York, then the number of restaurants in the city, and finally calculate the revenues for a single restaurant.
  • A bottom-up model would look at the number of tables in a restaurant, the percent that is occupied, and the average price per party. Then it would multiply this by days of the year (adjusting for seasonality).

This is an oversimplification–there are plenty of other factors to consider such as location, type of restaurant, and so on. But the end result should provide two estimates of annual revenue. If they’re wildly different, something is wrong with your business model (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

As you’re conducting problem interviews, remember to ask enough
demographic-type questions to understand who the interviewees are. The questions you’ll ask will depend a great deal on who you’re speaking to and the type of business you’re starting (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013):

  • If you’re going after a business market, you’ll want to know more about a person’s position in the company, buying power, budgeting, seasonal influences, and industry.
  • If you’re going after a consumer, you’re much more interested in lifestyle, interests, social circles, and so on.

What Will It Take to Make Them Aware of the Problem?

If the subjects don’t know they have the problem-but you have good evidence that the need really exists–then you need to understand how easily they’ll come to realize it, and the vectors of awareness (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013).

Be careful. Most of the time, when people don’t have a problem, they’ll still agree with you. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. To be nice, they’ll pretend they have the problem once you alert them to it.

Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics (2013)

If you’re convinced that people have the problem — and just need to be made aware of it — you need to find ways to test that assumption. Some ways to get a more honest answer from people are (Croll, A., & Yoskovitz, B. Lean Analytics, 2013):

  • Get them a prototype early on.
  • Use paper prototyping or a really simple mockup in PowerPoint, Keynote, or Balsamiq to watch how they interact with your idea without coaching.
  • See if they’ll pay immediately.
  • Watch them explain it to their friends and see if they understand how to spread the message.
  • Ask for referrals to others who might care.

Once you have found a problem worth solving, a critical step before jumping to solutions is to ensure you’ve got a good problem framing.

Problem Framing and Shared Understanding

In a previous post, I mentioned that — more often than not — it is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of the problems they are trying to solve. It has become a personal rally cry for me to help teams create shared understanding.

To make sure I’m understood, it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated; the result is the same: the team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

Shared understanding is the collective knowledge of the team that builds over time as the team works together. It’s a rich understanding of the space, the product, and the customers.

“Creating Shared Understanding” in Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve userexperience, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013)

Teams that attain a shared understanding are far more likely to get a great design than those teams who fail to develop a common perception of the project’s goals and outcome (Jared Spool, “Attaining a Collaborative Shared Understanding” in Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design, 2019).

When teams share an understanding, everyone knows what they’re working on, why it’s important, and what the outcome will look like.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

It’s straightforward to verify if the team lacks understanding of the problem the team is trying to solve. Just ask fundamental questions in your next meeting, like “what is the problem we are trying to solve”? “And for whom”?”

If you get different answers from key stakeholders, it is probably a good indication that you should jump in and help facilitate the discussion that will help the team to align.

Collaboration means shift from thinking big ideas alone and moving into the real-mess of thinking with others.

Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation (2019)

Changing the behaviour to a “we think together” model is the central activity of collaboration. Because thinking together closes a gap; people can now act without checking back in because there were there when the decision was made. They’ve already had the debates about all the trade-offs that actually make something work. This may appear a case of “when all was said and done, a lot more was said than done.” However, time needs to be spent in the messy and time-consuming front loaded process of thinking through possibilities in order to inform the decisions that needs to be made (Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation, 2019)

With that in mind, I strongly recommend that — no matter how well formulated a problem statement might be — it’s probably a good idea that stakeholders work with their teams and do Problem Framing exercises together.

No matter how straightforward a problem seems to be, different stakeholders will always have different views and opinions on what the problem is, how important it actually is, and the impact that it has. This is also helpful when the reason for the sprint is not clearly articulated, i.e., we need it to develop something innovative. Through a framing session, you can get all your stakeholders on the same page and establish a common language and purpose (Knapp, J., Zeratsky, J., & Kowitz, B., Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, 2016).

Problem Framing Workshop, by the Design Sprint Academy
By looking at the entire context of the business/product/ service strategy and linking it to overarching business goals/metrics and actual customer problems, decision-makers are able to define a clear problem statement for the sprint (Design Sprint Academy, What is problem Framing, 2019)

Problem Framing is about a shared understanding, team alignment, and defining a strategy for the future, so the stakeholders need to pay equal attention to both the business need as well as to the customer’s problem (Design Sprint Academy, What is problem Framing, 2019):

  1. Contextualize the problem: By using different frames, stakeholders review their understanding of the problem as well as the business context, state their assumptions, and align around a point of view.
  2. Justify the business need: Stakeholders link the design sprint challenge to overarching business goals/metrics and align on the core strategy to follow.
  3. Understand the customer: Stakeholders empathize with the user/customer by interacting with research insights and mapping the customer journey.
  4. Find the opportunity and commit: Once stakeholders can connect the customer’s problems to the business goals/strategy and the entire business context of the product/service/organization, they decide on the core opportunity to pursue.

Problem Framing and Psychological Safety

No one will ask questions or welcome challenges in places where they don’t feel they will be well-received, nor do they feel their questions will help the team address real problems. For team members to speak up, they need to feel psychologically safe.

Psychological safety is the belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes (Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization, 2018).

Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.

Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization (2018).

Creating psychological safety is not about being nice to each other or reducing performance standards, but rather about creating a culture of openness where teammates can share learning, be direct, take risks, admit they “screwed up,” and are willing to ask for help when they’re in over their head (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021).

woman placing her finger between her lips
Learn more about how psychological safety is a prerequisite for creating shared understanding (Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com)

Psychological Safety and Trust

Teammates are not going to open up or challenge each other when they don’t trust each other. When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses and even fears. Now, if this is beginning to sound like some get-naked, touchy-feely theory, rest assured is not that is nothing of the sort (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

The journey of every high performing team starts with addressing the first dysfunctions of teams: absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

We’ll come back to trust later when we talk about Rethink the Goal.

Now that you’ve challenged the problem statement and asked questions to make team members clarify the problem space, you can take the team’s problem-solving skills to the next level and help them reframe the problem!

Problem Framing and Reframing

Sometimes, to solve a hard problem, you have to stop looking for solutions to it. Instead, you must turn your attentions to the problem itself – not just to analyze it, but to shift the way you frame it. Reframing is seeing the current situation from a different perspective, which can be tremendously helpful in solving problems, making decision and learning. When people get stuck in a recurring issue, for example in a complex situation or in solving a complex problem, it is rarely because they are missing a certain step-by-step procedure to fix things. Instead, it is often because they are stuck in how they see situation (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., What’s Your Problem?, 2020).

Is the Elevator too slow, or is the wait annoying? Problem Framing and Reframing in "What’s Your Problem?" (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., 2020)
“The Elevator is too slow” in What’s Your Problem? (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., 2020)

It’s important to note that reframing is different from analyzing a problem. Analysis — as I use the term here, is when you ask — “Why is the elevator slow?” and try to understand the various factors that influence the speed. Being good at analysis is about being precise, methodical, detail-oriented, and good with numbers (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., What’s Your Problem?, 2020).

Reframing is a higher-level activity. It is when you ask, Is the speed of the elevator the right thing to focus on? Being good at reframing is not necessarily about the details. It is more about seeing the big picture and having the ability to consider situations from multiple perspectives

Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., What’s Your Problem? (2020)

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group, has delivered some hilarious, yet insightful TED Talks. In ‘Life lessons from an Ad man,’ he brings up the question of “How do we make the journey from London to Paris better?”

The engineering solution is to spend six billion pounds to build completely new tracks so that about 40 minutes can be saved from the three-and-half-hour journey time.

Rory’s imaginative way improving a train journey is not about making the journey shorter. His solution is…

Employ all of the world’s top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train, handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey. Now, people will ask for the trains to be slowed down.

Rory Sutherland
Rory Sutherland
It may seem that big problems require big solutions, but ad man Rory Sutherland says many flashy, expensive fixes are just obscuring better, simpler answers (Sutherland, R., Life lessons from an Ad man, 2010).

If you can define the problem differently than everybody else in the industry, you can generate alternatives that others aren’t thinking about.

Roger Martin

Reframing also helps to simplify a problem to stimulate new thinking. When we’re overburdened with a problem, we can get stuck in complexity. This often happens when we feel we know a problem inside out – we’ve spent plenty of time on it and have gone through the whole convoluted process of dismantling it, searching it and verifying that it’s the correct one (Griffiths, C., & Costi, M., The Creative Thinking Handbook: Your step-by-step guide to problem solving in business, 2019).

There are five nested strategies can help you find these alternative framing of the problem (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., What’s Your Problem?, 2020):

  • Look outside the frame. Are there elements we are not considering? Is there anything outside the frame that we are not currently paying attention?
  • Rethink the goal. Is there a better goal to pursue?
  • Examine bright spots. Have we already solved the problem at least once? Are there positive outliers in the group? Who else deals with this type of problem? Can we broadcast the problem widely?
  • Look in the mirror. What is my/our role in creating this problem? Scale the problem down to your level. Get an outside view of yourself.
  • Take their perspective. You will get people wrong unless you invest genuine effort in trying to understand them. List the parties and listen to them. Escape your own emotions. Look for reasonable explanations.

Look Outside the Frame

Expert problem solvers deliberately avoid delving into the details of what’s in front of them. Instead, they “zoom out” and examine the larger situation (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem?, 2020):

  • Look beyond your own expertise: “give a small boy a hammer, and he will find everything he encounters needs pounding”
  • Look to prior events: How are you framing the problem from a time perspective. Did something important happen before the period you’re looking at? Did something happened after that you missed?
  • Look for hidden influences: Are there stakeholders whose influence you’re missing? Are there higher-level, systemic factors at play that influence the people involved?

Examine the Bright Spots

When it’s time to change, we must look for bright spots — the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to switch from archeological problem solving ti bright-spot evangelising (Heath, C., & Heath, D., Switch: How to change things when change is hard, 2010).

To find the bright spots, we need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?

Heath, C., & Heath, D., Switch: How to change things when change is hard (2010)

With bright spots, the actually reframing is really complicated. The hard part is typically to find the bright spots — because sometimes, they are located in rather surprising places. Here are four questions to help you find them (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem?, 2020):

  • Have we already solved the problem as least once? Consider if there was ever a time — even just once — when we didn’t’ have the problem, or that problem was less severe.
  • Are there positive outliers in our group? Is there anyone in our peer group that has solved the problem? Can we find out what they’re doing differently?
  • Who else deals with this type of problem? How could you describe your problem in more abstract terms? Who else, outside our own industry, deals with that type of problem? Who seems to not have this problem, even if they are in a similar situation? What are they doing differently?

Don’t just look to other businesses. Sometimes the best solutions can be found in nature and less obvious places. Consider the pipeline industry, which as struggle to solve the problem “How can we find and seal cracks in the pipeline?” When they asked “Who else solved a similar problem?” they realised that sealing cracks is something that the cardiovascular system’s coagulation mechanisms do all of the time. Armed with this knowledge, industry experts worked on the problem “How can we create an inert coagulant ingredient that will seal small cracks?” (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020).

Problem Framing and Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is concerned with breaking out of the concept prisons of old ideas. This lead to changes in attitude and approach; to looking in a different way at things which have always been looked at in the same way. Liberation from old ideas and the stimulation on new ones are twin aspects of lateral thinking (De Bono, E., Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step, 2015).

You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder at the same direction

De Bono, E., Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step (2015)

It’s important to question the things that everyone else takes for granted, as rules that cannot be broken, as fixed parameters that can never be challenged. The kinds of questions to explore the problem space from a lateral thinking perspective include (Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills, 2017):

  • Are we asking the right question?
  • Why do we need to solve this problem?
  • Why do we do think this way at all?
  • How can we restate the problem?
  • Who would benefit and who would lose if we solve this problem?
  • What are the rules of our business and what would happen if we broke those?
  • What are we assuming about this situation?
  • What would happen if we challenged those assumptions?
  • Can we draw a diagram or picture of the problem?
  • Can we model the problem?
  • How would someone from another planet solve this problem?
  • If we had unlimited money and resources how would we solve this problem?
  • How would someone in a completely different line of business solve this problem?
  • How can we look at this in a different way?

Lateral Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

Innovation teams are eager to quickly move to building concepts based on insightful findings from previous modes. While exploring concepts, teams naturally follow their instincts to jump in immediately and get started on brainstorming ideas. What they might miss is uncovering the organisation’s or the industry’s hidden assumptions and orthodoxies that prejudice the project in a given direction (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013)

The current “frame” around the area where solutions might lie may well have to be reframed. Innovators must first ask themselves, “Are we coming up with the right solutions?”

Kumar, V., 101 design methods (2013)

It is normal for organizations to follow the norms that their industry has established for years. But is it possible to recognise those norms as assumptions and find out if they are still relevant in these rapidly changing times? Are there other ways, new ways, to provide something new, even if they mean disrupting the industry behaviors? And is it possible to do it without losing sight of the core fundamental objectives of meeting peoples’ needs and fitting well with the context? (Kumar, V., “Mindsets” in 101 design methods, 2013)

Here are some tips for challenging assumptions (Sloane, P., The leader’s guide to lateral thinking skills, 2017):

  • Recognize that you and everyone else have ingrained assumptions about every situation.
  • Ask plenty of basic questions in order to discover and challenge those assumptions.
  • Pretend you are a complete outsider and ask questions like “Why we do it this way at all?”
  • Reduce a situation to its simplest components in order to take it out of your Environment.
  • Restate a problem is different terms.
  • Consider what the experts and professionals advise and then consider doing the opposite.

Lateral Thinking and Creating Choices

The team’s effectiveness in making good decisions by picking the right choices depends on their ability to generate alternatives.

Design is about exploring and comparing merits of alternatives. There is not just one path, and at any given time or any given question, there may be numerous different alternatives being considered, only one of which will eventually find itself in the product.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Without multiple solutions to any question, the process is highly vulnerable. Without the ability to see all the work at once, spread out, relationships will be missed, and the conversation and subsequent designs will suffer. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).

Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.

“Create imaginative alternatives” in Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions, Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (2015)

That’s why the Goldilocks principle is so important: you don’t to “design yourself in a corner” by creating problem statements that leave little room for alternatives.

aisle architecture building business
Learn more about how to create great choices and generate alternatives in Strategy and the Art of Creating Choices (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Lateral Thinking and Changing Perspectives

Sometimes you just need to look at your problem statement with a fresh set of eyes and consider it from a different point of view. Here are a few questions to help you change perspective (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020):

  • Resequence: how can we delay a decision until later in the process when we have more or better information? How ca we make a decision earlier in the process, before we have all the necessary information? How can we perform multiple tasks in parallel?
  • Reassign: who else couch perform this task? How can we genericize the question so that it does not imply anyone in particular (e.g.: instead of “Joe” what about “Sales”)? How else might this task be accomplished (e.g.: via automation)?
  • Access: how can we change ownership words to “access” words, such as rent, subscribe, lease, or use?
  • Emotion: how ca we shift from corrective words such as “improve,” “fix,” or “reduce,” to a more aspirational goal? How can we reframe the problem in a way that stimulates solvers from an emotional perspective?
  • Substitute: how can we swap out one or more words in the problem statement for different terms?

Lateral Thinking and Switching Elements

Some problem statements can be reframed by switching from one parameter to another. Here are a few questions to help you switch elements (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020):

  • Flip: how can we turn the problem upside down by improving a different factor?
  • Conflicts: how can we design for the problem to allow for and embrace conflicting attributes? If you want to know how, check Integrative Thinking in the Art of Creating Choices.
  • Performance Paradox: what can we focus on other than the outcome?
  • Pain vs. Gain: what is the pain we need to solve? W/hat might be lost if we don’t solve this problem?
  • Bad idea: how can we turn a bad idea into a good one? What will give you what you don’t want — and then do the opposite?

Lateral Thinking and Six Thinking Hats

The Six Thinking Hats, a concept articulated by Edward de Bono, is a powerful tool for brainstorming and innovation. By breaking down thoughts into six “parallel” or “lateral” areas, it allows a spectrum of thought, from gut feeling to data analysis, to be separately discussed. By using these six types of thinking in a structured way, groups can more effectively approach problem solving.

Six Thinking Hats and Problem Framing
Learn more techniques of lateral thinking in my Six Thinking Hats Workshop Lecture for the Design Designing Interactions / Experiences module at the MA Integrated module I’m teaching at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences

Rethink the Goal

We often think of problems as obstacles: annoying things that stand in the way and prevent us from reaching something good we want. Most goals enjoy a strange immunity from scrutiny — beating the competition, growing the business, driving innovation (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem?, 2020).

Sometimes, the key to radical breakthroughs is not to analyse obstacles but to ask a different set of questions: are we pursuing the right goal? Is there a better goal?

Wedell-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem? (2020)

Here a few of suggestions to help you rethink goals (Wedell-Wedellsborg, T.,  What’s Your Problem?, 2020):

  • Clarify the Higher Level Goals: why do we want to achieve this Goal? What is the benefit? What is the goal behind the goal?
  • Challenge the Logic: are our assumptions actually true? does the immediate goal necessarily lead to the outcome we ultimately want? Even if it’s generally true, are there special circumstances where it doesn’t apply? Do we need to refine or revise our thinking about how we win?
  • Are there other ways to achieve the important goals? Are there better goals to persue? Are there alternative ways of achieving the higher-level goal?
  • Question obvious goals, too: are there any goals that should so obviously good that they should not be questions? Question them anyway — and be way of words with positive connotation, such as authenticity, originally, and safety.
  • Examine the sub-goals as well: If you haven’t already, map the sub0goals, and then subject them to the same scrutiny. What might you be wrong about? What might you be forgetting?
Patrick Whiney explains the value of design for business and innovation by abstracting design problems.
Patrick Whiney explains the value of design for business and innovation by abstracting design problems.

It should be noted that rethinking goals should often be used in conjunctions with other reframing techniques. Once you’ve established a stretch target — for example — you may need to reframe the problem again to generate better solutions (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020).

In my experience, it takes the highest level of influence with your stakeholders for you to challenge their goals, which requires a lot of trust. And trust must be earned and deserved. It would be best if you did something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get.

Based on all the challenges of influencing Strategy and Stakeholder Management, one framework I have found very useful to grow your influence systematically is the Trusted Advisor.

The Trusted Advisor understands that there will be times when the client’s best interests would be better served by spending more time in the problem space at risk on impacting their self-imposed deadlines and constraints (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, 2021).

group of people sitting in front of table
Learn more about the skills required for design strategists to influence influence the decisions that drive design vision forward and become a trusted advisor in Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com)

From Outputs to Outcomes

In the old days of engineering, setting project goals wasn’t that hard. How have we historically given teams a goal that they can work on? Mostly, we simply asked teams to build features—but features are the wrong way to go. We often build features that create no value. Instead, we need to give teams an outcome to achieve. (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019).

You might be asking, “what you do mean by outcome”. Joshua Seiden defines as outcome “a change in user behaviour that drives business results.”

The Project Logic Model, adapted from Kellogg Foundation
“What are the changes in behaviour that drive business results?” in Outcomes over Output, Seiden, J. (2019)

A major beverage company tracked the number of repair call on its vending machines (an activity) because it was concerned about the rising costs of maintaining equipment. While this revealed an interesting number, it didn’t help much. It failed to show whether the company was attaining the outcomes it really wanted, which was to increase the overall uptime of machines. By focusing on uptime instead, they were able to increase customer satisfaction, sales, and machine availability (Shapiro, S., Invisible solutions: 25 Lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems, 2020).

Using outcomes creates focus and alignment. It eliminates needless work. And it puts the customer at the center of everything you do

Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output (2019)
man in red long sleeve shirt holding a drilling tool
Jobs to be Done work as a great common exchange currency between leadership, designers, product managers and developers by helping us discuss problems instead of solutions (Photo by Blue Bird on Pexels.com)

You can help the team start thinking in terms of outcomes by asking three simple questions (Seiden, J., Outcomes over Output, 2019):

  • What are the user and customer behaviours that drive business results? I’ve suggested in another post that facilitating discussions around Jobs to be Done can be a great way to get the team to align.
  • How do we get people to do more of these things?
  • How do we know we’re right? The easiest (and the hardest) way to answer that question is to design and conduct tests.

The Right Time for Problem Framing

You might ask yourself, “These are all great, but when should I be doing what?”. Without knowing what kind of team setup you have and what kinds of processes you run in your organization, the best I can do is to map all of the techniques above the Double Diamond framework.

The Double Diamond Framework

Design Council’s Double Diamond clearly conveys a design process to designers and non-designers alike. The two diamonds represent a process of exploring an issue more widely or deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking).  

  • Discover. The first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume, what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.
  • Define. The insights gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.
  • Develop. The second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.
  • Deliver. Delivery involves testing out different solutions on a small scale, rejecting those that will not work, and improving the ones that will.
Design Council’s framework for innovation also includes the key principles and design methods that designers and non-designers need to take, and the ideal working culture needed, to achieve significant and long-lasting positive change.
 A clear, comprehensive and visual description of the design process in What is the framework for innovation? (Design Council, 2015)

Process Awareness characterizes the degree to which the participants are informed about the process procedures, rules, requirements, workflow, and other details. The higher the process awareness, the more profoundly the participants are engaged in a process, and so the better results they deliver.

As I mentioned above, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplating and exploring the problem space a little longer. I’m of the opinion that designers — instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping too quickly into solutions — should facilitate the discussions and help others raise awareness around the creative and problem solving process.

Knowing when teams should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.

From a process awareness perspective, Problem Framing makes more sense during what in the Double Diamond would be considered the discovery phase, when the insights about the problems you are trying to solve have been informed by research.

Asking Questions and Developing Process Awareness

That said, asking everyone to take a step back, reset and restart with problem framing might be perceived as risky (or a waste of time), so I might take convincing the team — sometimes, the entire organization — to change how they work. You might try, but I’m pretty sure that — unless you have the executive support of a strong stakeholder or have strong alliances in the organization — it will either take a long time to change it (and you will end up being frustrated) or you might not be able to change it the way you want (and you will end up being frustrated), or you might end not being able to change it at all (and you will end up being even more frustrated).

I suggest trying to map all your team’s current processes and where or when decisions are made and see how you can find opportunities to run Problem Framing activities in synergy with the processes already in place.

Problem Framing during “Discover”

As the name of the phase suggests, this is when most of the discovery activities should be happening. Because there is a high level of ambiguity, a bit of back and forth is expected. You can help the team move to clarity faster by having a strong shared vision, so this is probably the phase when creating good problem framing pays off in the long term.

That said, this is the phase when teams will be tempted to jump into solutions, so you should be asking good questions to ensure teams are exploring the problem space, doing more research, and conducting divergent interviews while testing business ideas.

Here are my recommendations of activities and methods for — and around — problem discovery that will help you ensure you’ve got good problem framing:

crop laboratory technician examining interaction of chemicals in practical test modern lab

Strategy and Testing Business Ideas

Testing Business Ideas throughly, regardless of how great they may seem in theory, is a way to mitigate risks of your viability hypothesis being wrong.

Problem Framing during “Define”

In this phase, we should see the level of ambiguity diminishing, and facilitating investment discussions have the highest payoff in mitigating back-and-forth. That said, the cost of changing your mind increases drastically in this phase. Helping the team with creating great choices is critical.

That said, this is the phase when conducting convergent interviews and experimentation should be providing the data that will help them make good decisions.

Here are my recommendations for suggested quantifying and qualifying activities and methods:

calculator and pen on table

Facilitating Investment Discussions

In this post, you will learn how to help teams facilitate investment discussions by finding ways to remove (or at least reduce) subjectivity when we compare, contrast, or debate the value ideas, approaches, and solutions to justify their investment.

Problem Framing and Decision Drift

As I mentioned in the first post of this serieswe need a different kind of senior designer. We need designers working on user experience teams must first advance from a tactical designer to strategic designer. They can not only move pixels but translate design insights into a currency that business stakeholders can understand. After that, they can get teams to paddle in the same direction.

The challenge of helping teams paddle on the same direction seem to be for many reasons:

  • Designers feel that projects start without a clear vision or focus on which problems to solve and for who
    • Our user-centered design tools set may have focused too much on the needs of the user, at the expense of business needs and technological constraints.
    • We need to point at futures that are both desirableprofitable, and viable (“Change By Design“, Brown, T., & Katz, B., 2009).
  • Projects that do start with a clear vision start slowing stray away as the product development lifecycle goes on
    • Designers may have naively believed that they can provide the user perspective at only so many points of the product development lifecycle (e.g., during the project/backlog/sprint planning phase).
    • In reality, “any product that makes into the world is actually the outcome of dozens, hundreds or thousands of decisions along the way, each decision building upon each other, informing and influencing all aspects of the user experience.” (Elements fo User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, Garrett, 2010).

It’s not a lack of effort or good intentions that renders a strategy inert. Every executive wants their team to understand. But there are three nasty barriers that make strategic communication more difficult (Heath, D., & Heath, C. “Sticky Advice” in Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, 2009):

  • Curse of Knowledge. It leads executives to talk about strategy as though they themselves were the audience. It temps them to use language that is sweeping, high-level, and abstract (The most efficient manufacturer of semiconductors! The lowest-cost provider of stereo equipment! World-class customer service!) Often leaders are not even aware they are speaking abstractly. To thwart the curse of knowledge, leaders need to “translate” their strategies into concrete language, and storytelling is a great way to do that!
  • Decision paralysis. Most people in an organization aren’t in charge of formulating strategy; they just have to understand the strategy and use it to make decisions. But many strategies aren’t concrete enough to resolve a well-established decision bias called decision paralysis. Psychologists have uncovered situations where the mere existence of choice — even choice around several good options — seems to paralyze us in making decisions. How can strategy liberate employees from decision paralysis? When people are about to talk about strategy, they are more likely to make good decisions than when the strategy exists only as a set of rules.
  • Lack of common language. Good strategic communication is like Esperanto. It facilitates communication among people who have different native languages and carves out turf that people can share. Employees rely on leaders to define the organization’s game plan. Leaders rely on employees to tell them how the game is going. For this dialogue to work, both sides must be able to understand each other. Here is why creating shared understanding, and facilitating two-way negotiations around outcomes become super critical!

As the project progresses, you need to be aware of how decisions drift given these three nasty barriers, but also how our understanding of the problem evolves as we learn more about it.

Reframing is not limited to the start of the process, nor should it be done independently of the work of analyzing and solving the problem. On the contrary, your understanding of the problem will develop alongside your solution.

Wedell-Wedellsborg, T., What’s Your Problem? (2020)

Be aware of the forces that lead to decision fragility and decision drift (we think we’ve agreed, but we haven’t), including too much work-in-progress, lack of alignment, priorities shifting, and rushed meetings!

Understanding the perspectives of the people you interact with will help you adjust what you say and how you collaborate. The goal is not to persuade others to adopt your intentions. The goal is to let empathy affect your own approach.

Young, I. Practical Empathy (2019)
john cutler_decisiondrift
John Cutler explains the dynamics and the underlying forces that create decision drift!

You must help the team constantly revisit and revise decisions done in previous meetings to validate the problem framing is still valid, ensuring that our decisions are helping to step towards our vision.

Before Committing to Solve a Problem

Just because you’ve got a good understanding of the problem, that you’ve framed it and reframed it, and you realize why is important to solve it, maybe you should spend some time thinking a few things through before committing to solve it (Berger, W., “Part II: Questions to Spark Creativity” in The Book of Beautiful Questions, 2019):

  • Can I own this problem? The best kind of problem is the one that you, alone, have noticed. But if others are pursuing it, then the question becomes: what is my special twist?
  • What can I bring that others can’t? This is not so much about the approach you have in mind (that’s your special twist), but more about your talent, perspective, expertise and how can you make a unique contribution to this creative challenge.
  • Will I still love this problem tomorrow? This is the “crystal ball” question: it requires you to try to envision how the subject, and the work itself, is apt to keep you engaged and enthused over time.
  • What is the potential upside? Not to be confused with trying to predict hard outcomes (will I make a million bucks on this idea?), but rather trying to envision the positive impact this project could have in a best-case scenario.

Annamalai, Nagappan; Kamaruddin, Shahrul; Azid, Ishak Abdul; Yeoh, TS (September 2013). “Importance of Problem Statement in Solving Industry Problems”. Applied Mechanics and Materials. Zurich. 421: 857–863. doi:10.4028/www.scientific.net/AMM.421.857. S2CID 60791623

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By Itamar Medeiros

Originally from Brazil, Itamar Medeiros currently lives in Germany, where he works as Director of Design Strategy at SAP.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, Itamar has helped truly global companies in multiple continents create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles. During his 7 years in China, he promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

Itamar holds a MA in Design Practice from Northumbria University (Newcastle, UK), for which he received a Distinction Award for his thesis Creating Innovative Design Software Solutions within Collaborative/Distributed Design Environments.

17 replies on “Problem Framing for Strategic Design”

Great content in here, will be very helpful over the coming weeks as we go to explore our own projects.

One thing I learned is the double diamond framework. I’ve seen something similar be used at SuccessFactors but wasn’t aware of its origin.

One question I have, you mention that when interviewing people it is often difficult for them to admit if they don’t feel like your problem is actually a problem, because they don’t want to hurt feelings. I assume psych safety would help with this, but other than that is it really just a subjective judgement of how they appear to be responding to the questions whether or not the problem actually resonates with them?

One thing I learned:

Goldilocks principle

One question I still have:

How to make people nicely aware of their Arrogance / Ignorance if they insist on their opinion.

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