Problem Framing: What it is and How to Write a Problem Statement

It’s a well-known fact that most businesses fail because they built a product nobody needs. In business, solving a problem is nowhere near as important as solving the right problem. Because creating the right solution to the right problem for your users, is the surest way to make profit.

That’s what problem framing does. When a doctor misdiagnoses a set of symptoms, the result could be fatal for the patient. Likewise, misdiagnosing user problems, could prove fatal to your business.

Problem framing is a process of discovery to understand and define a problem. It is a vital first step in the design thinking principle. Framing or reframing a problem is a crucial process that you can skip at your own peril. Even Einstein agrees.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Albert Einstein

Problem framing is not problem solving. It is challenging preconceived assumptions and considering different perspectives to a problem. Understanding the problem correctly makes solving the problem easier.

What is a problem statement?

The purpose of problem framing is, often, to produce a problem statement. A problem statement is a concise statement that summarises the current state (problem), the ideal state (goal), and the gap between them.

Problem framing
Problem framing

There is no standard to write a problem statement. Some problem statements come with a proposed solution. Here is an example of a simple problem statement for a small business facing challenges with remote working.

  • Current State
    Due to the pandemic, all meetings are held virtually. Often, things are misunderstood between us and clients.
  • Consequence or Gap
    Because many of our client lives in a different time zone, we are usually wasting time waiting for clarification.
  • Ideal State
    Ideally, every discussion is captured and can be referred to clear up any confusion, and work can start immediately.

Why is problem framing crucial?

There’s an urban legend about how NASA used a lot of money to create a pen that can work in zero gravity conditions. On the other hand, the Soviet Union spent nothing and simply used a pencil in space.

This is what problem framing does — establishing whether you even have a problem to begin with. If you do find a problem, it may or may not be worth solving for your business. The entire process clears your mind and allows your teams to have important discussions earlier before everybody plods along the wrong path.

There will still be moments where you’ll wonder, “Why didn’t we ask or consider this before?”. But it will rarely happen if you’re disciplined about problem framing. And sometimes, you’ll realise that the problem you’re facing is a small part of a bigger blunder in the past.

You can take any issue and have different perspectives from everyone in the room. How you understand and approach a problem may vary wildly from your boss or colleagues.

Perspective is powerful because it shapes the outcome. Problem framing is a means to get everybody seeing and understanding the same thing, so that you can work towards a solution together. The most important ingredient is empathy and an open mind.

A good problem statement can act as a convincing argument when dealing with investors, management, and other stakeholders.

This one is a no-brainer. You don’t want to be pouring money, resources and time into a project that won’t bring you much success. You want to be solving a problem for the long-term, not to hack a quick solution that will quell the issue for a little while.

How to frame a problem?

You will need as much data and research as possible to begin this exercise. Trawl through user interviews, feedback, market research, and any relevant data sets you can find. There are many problem framing techniques including:

1. The 5W Problem Framing Canvas

You can do this exercise in a group. In this exercise, you are considering the Who, What, Why, Where, When of a problem.

  • Who is facing this problem?
  • What is the problem they are facing right now?
  • Where does this problem happen?
  • When does this problem arise?
  • Why is this problem worth solving?

2. Diverge and Converge Brainstorming

Allow each stakeholder to define the problem on their own. Gather all definitions, discuss, and select the best one. Or craft the best problem statement from what’s on the table.

3. Empathy Mapping

This exercise is putting yourself in shoes of who you’re solving the problem for. You will fill up 4 quadrants — what a user thinks, feels, does and says. Mapping them out will give you a better picture of the problem.

Tips on problem framing

This exercise is putting yourself in shoes of who you’re solving the problem for. You will fill up 4 quadrants — what a user thinks, feels, does and says. Mapping them out will give you a better picture of the problem.

A problem statement shouldn’t be too generic or specific. Being too broad makes problem solving much harder because you’re trying to solve too many issues in one instance. A broad statement can be further divided into smaller statements, to tackle one by one.

A narrow problem statement will limit creativity. Usually, a narrow statement is when you have included assumptions about the solution before solving the problem. Writing that your user needs a better app means you’re already assuming the answer is a mobile app, limiting the possibilities.

Imagine the problem in a different environment, severity, size, and with different types of users. Seeing a problem under different scenarios will broaden your mind to see it from multiple points of view. Testing it under varying conditions can help you go deeper into the problem and untangle complex issues.

It sounds like common sense, but a lot of companies leave it too late to frame a problem, skip it altogether, or have one person dictate and define everything. This defeats the purpose. Problem framing is an exercise that needs to be done as early as possible, and with the relevant stakeholders. You should involve people with authority, knowledge of the matter and, ideally, an open mind.

Family first // Principal @relabstudios // Customer-obsessed digital design agency // Design sprint advocate // Melbourne // Say hello @alhermanto

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