Finding Your Problem with Problem Statements

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You can’t solve a problem you don’t know about. Seems like an obvious concept, right? But too often we don’t follow this advice. We assume we know what the problem is when we start a project and just jump straight to coming up with solutions.

In the design thinking process, though, you don’t make assumptions and you don’t jump to conclusions, or solutions. Design thinking requires that you don’t take the problem that sparked a project at face value.

In the video below, design engineer Jordan Robert explains how her team learned this lesson the hard way. They designed an attachment for an existing piece of equipment that their client was pleased with, but when it was implemented in the field it didn’t fit any of the equipment. Turns out each piece of equipment had slightly different dimensions and her team had only tested the design on 1 single piece that they had in-house.

Robert’s team followed and fulfilled the requirements set up by their client, but they failed to create a usable design. They didn’t ask to see or hear about the field equipment their design was going to be implemented on. They didn’t ask if the problem they were solving for was the right problem.

Knowing what problem you need to solve requires asking the right questions of all project stakeholders—business clients AND product users. A business’ goals are an important consideration when defining what a project needs to offer solutions for, but businesses are not always the most informed about the needs of their users.

To find out what users need, you spend the first stage of the design thinking process conducting research—often in the form of interviews, observations, and surveys—in order to empathize and better understand the needs of all users in a product’s ecosystem. Your research findings then inform the second stage of the design thinking process, called define, and help you to craft your project’s problem statement.

What is a problem statement?

A problem statement is a way of stating a project’s design challenge in an actionable way. Design challenges are simply the problems that your users face that you’ve discovered during your research. Problem statements are about what you need to solve for, not how you are going to solve it.

You may also hear the terms Point of View statements, POV statements, user needs statements, or “How Might We” statements thrown around. According to Nielsen Norman Group these all mean somewhat the same thing as problem statements, just with different structures. Simply choose which language you want to use for a project and stay consistent.

Why create a problem statement?

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Imagine you are working on a project trying to solve the problem of cold feet. You knit the most beautiful pair of wool gloves. Your users rave about their warmth and softness. But when you ask them if their feet are warm, their answer is no. You’ve spent time and resources to create a great product, but, in terms of this specific project, it’s a failure.

Problem statements are helpful at preventing failures like this because they focus projects on the most important problem to be solved throughout the design process, instead of trying to solve for everything and ending up with a solution that solves nothing. Stating a problem in an actionable way is also more inspiring and useful for designers when they begin crafting solutions in the third stage of design thinking—ideation.

Once a problem statement is defined you can use it as a metric of success throughout the process and especially during user testing in order to make sure your solution is fulfilling the goal of the project—warm feet instead of warm hands. Your solution may be well designed and appealing, but if it does not solve the problem then it will not be a success.

How to create a problem statement

(Action verb) is a challenge for (user) because (insight).
Structure of problem statements.

Problem statements are crafted using the above structure and, in order to be useful, should be:

  • User-centered: based on user insights gained from research and focused on helping people rather than talking about technology, financial gains, or product specifications
  • Active: always begin with a verb—Create, Define, Adapt, etc.
  • Broad enough for creative freedom: not focused on specific ways of implementation or technical requirements that would limit or discourage a designer from considering innovative solutions in ideation
  • Narrow enough to be manageable: include constraints to make the project manageable and prevent overwhelming designers with too many possible options

Creating problem statements requires knowing how to turn user research into helpful user insights. It’s a process that bridges the first and second stages of the design thinking process through the relationship between analysis and synthesis. Tim Brown, lead proponent of design thinking and founder of renowned design firm IDEO, says that analysis and synthesis are “equally important, and each plays an essential role in the process of creating options and making choices.”

Relationship between analysis and synthesis

Analysis happens in the first stage of design thinking when you research, observe, and document findings about your users. You then take this information and synthesize, or organize and interpret, it in the second stage in order to define what problem you need to solve. Once the problem is defined you can write a problem statement to begin sparking innovative solutions in the third stage.

Problem Statement Examples

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In a previous post I created empathy maps based on observations of the CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, Sharon Price John, and one of the company’s assistant store managers, Kendall, during an episode of Undercover Boss.

Empathy maps are one tool you can use to synthesize findings from user research. They are divided into multiple named quadrants, most commonly labeled: Say and Do, Think and Feel, See, Hear, Pain, and Gain. You use these sections to organize your research information.

Using the content of my Undercover Boss empathy maps, I’ve crafted the following problem statements:

  1. Using the new Smile for Me station is a challenge for customers because clear instructions are not provided within the store environment.

    When Sharon is undercover in the newly remodeled Northridge store, she hears from employee Leney how the new store model may have problems. As part of the new model, Build-A-Bear has replaced the well-known Fluff Me station where children gave their new bears air baths with the Smile for Me station which has a designated backdrop for taking pictures with their bears. Leney shared with Sharon that parents often think the station is meant for the store to take photos of the customers as part of the experience. As a result, Leney must explain to them that it is meant as a designated spot for customers to take pictures with their phones themselves should they want to. The store does not provide photos to customers.

  2. Fulfilling orders efficiently is a challenge for warehouse employees because the current warehouse setup requires them to repeat certain steps in the process unnecessarily.

    While Sharon is undercover at the company’s Columbus, OH distribution warehouse, she sees how efficiently warehouse worker Solomon compiles an order, covering the least amount of ground required on his picker. However, when he gets his order to the loading dock, he must slide everything off where he has stacked it on his picker and on to a metal chute. He then goes to the bottom of the chute and re-stacks and rechecks everything for the order before packaging it all together. He must do this quickly before other employees start sending their orders down the chute or else he will slow down the whole warehouse.

  3. Sharing about the bear-building process is a challenge for store employees because the company does not provide detailed information.

    While at the Whitehall, PA store Sharon is walked through the bear-building process by store employee Nick. When she asks him how the Add Sound station can identify the type of animal a customer has chosen and match it to its proper sound, Nick just says he doesn’t know. Then when he’s sewing up a bear, Sharon asks him how many stitches are needed and he responds that he doesn’t know exactly because the company never told him. All store instructions say is to sew up the bears.

  4. Training new employees is a challenge for Kendall because the company’s training manual is not helpful for different types of learners.

    At the Alpharetta, GA store, Kendall shows Sharon the company’s training manual but then recommends her own version of it. When Sharon nervously inquires why Kendall has risked breaking the rules by not using the provided materials, Kendall replies that the company’s manual has not helped all of her many new employees to quickly learn and become comfortable with their jobs. So, she took the information from the manual and formatted it into a Cliff Notes style that various types of learners can be successful with it during the on-boarding process.

  5. Greeting customers unfamiliar with Build-A-Bear is a challenge for Sharon because she must have a good memory.

    As part of her new employee training Sharon must roleplay with Kendall who is pretending to be a new customer walking in the store. Company guidelines say that employees must greet all customers and explain how Build-A-Bear works, including what is and is not part of the package when purchasing a bear. Sharon is very nervous because she has no experience actually working in the stores and Kendall has thrown her in to this exercise right after arriving to work. As a result, Sharon struggles to remember everything on the list and share it in a friendly and confident manner.

Following the previously mentioned requirements of problem statements, each one of my statements begins with a verb and is based on observations I made while watching the episode. As you can see from my explanations below each statement, my observations were quite detailed and included mentions of specific pieces of equipment, products, processes or emotions. But for my statements I refrained from including these details.

For example, I said that “clear instructions are not provided within the store environment” instead of saying “signage” because “signage” would limit the scope of possible solutions for this problem to just physical, readable signs on the walls.

However, my statements are not lacking all detail. I could have said, “Training new employees is a challenge for Kendall because they have trouble learning,” but there are an infinite numbers of reasons someone could struggle to learn. By narrowing down the cause to the training manual, this statement can help designers focus better but still have a range of solutions — an audio or video version of the manual, more visual communication in it, adjusting the reading level of the copy.

Take time for problem statements

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Defining the problem is arguably the most important step in solving a problem. Without the proper focus or scope, your problem statement will not be useful and will leave your team flying blind. You will have neither a good inspiration for ideating solutions nor a yard stick against which you can measure the success of your solution. So, take the time and the energy to get to know what your problem is before embarking on the fun work of solving it.


References

Benjamin, A. (2017, April 17) Design: How to define the problem. Prototypr.io. Retrieved from https://blog.prototypr.io/design-how-to-define-the-problem-5361cccb2fcb

Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2019, December). Stage 2 in the Design Thinking Process: Define the Problem and Interpret the Results. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/stage-2-in-the-design-thinking-process-define-the-problem-and-interpret-the-results

Gibbons, S. (2019, March 24). User need statements: The ‘define’ stage in design thinking. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/user-need-statements/

Steven. E. (2019, January 14). How to define a problem statement: Your guide to the second step in the design thinking process. Career Foundry. Retrieved from https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/stage-two-design-thinking-define-the-problem/

Tapia, E. (2016, April 11). UX for Beginners: Defining the Design Problem. Studio by UXPin. Retrieved from https://www.uxpin.com/studio/blog/ux-for-beginners-defining-the-design-problem/

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