5 Steps of Design Thinking Part 2: Define

5 Steps of Design Thinking Part 2: Define

In the first part of our Design Thinking series, we examined techniques to better empathize with the customer and see the world through their eyes. Time-starved and overwhelmed customers are likely to use new innovative solutions in ways founders never imagined or intended unless they faced the same constraints.

From that mind space, your team begins to truly comprehend and define the problem that customers feel compelled to solve. The objective is to craft a problem statement that is absolutely clear, actionably specific, and structured to address pain points that customers must deal with in the real world.


Making Sense Out of Data


The first foundation of design thinking is that whatever you create, it must be centered in the human experience. That means that instead of starting with a problem statement like “We need to increase sales revenues by 10 percent,” a smarter approach would be to say, “Workers want to make productive use of the time they waste sitting in traffic jams.”

Set aside product categories, existing industry technology capabilities, company goals and anything else that gets in the way of prioritizing the customer’s pain.

Guidance from Stanford Design School recommends that your problem statement “should be a guiding statement that focuses on insights and needs of a particular user, or composite character. Insights don’t often just jump in your lap; rather they emerge from a process of synthesizing information to discover connections and patterns. In a word, the Define mode is sensemaking.”


Organizing Insights


The data inputs for this problem statement will come from in-person customer interviews, online surveys, industry analysis reports and the personal experience of the designers. 


When interviewing customers and examining the data, it’s important to ask why things are the way they are and why people are unhappy, in order to expose hidden assumptions that lay beneath the status quo. When customers respond to why-type questions, they begin to broaden their view of what’s possible and discover what it is they really want.

Some pain points are irritating but insignificant. Others can be intense but temporary. Persistent and insistent pains are the ones that are motivational enough to impel customer actions, either to try something new or to find alternative solutions. 


6 Qualifiers of a Great Problem Statement


As you define and refine your problem statement, ask your team if it:

  1. Puts a spotlight on a specific problem and encapsulates the chain of actions around the pain point
  2. Feels significant enough to motivate your team
  3. Suggests criteria for evaluating proposed solutions to the issue
  4. Gives your team enough space to investigate answers independently and simultaneously
  5. Sparks recognition and relief in the eyes of customers
  6. Points the way forward to the idea generation stage


A great example of a company that redefined a sector of the market through “defining the problem” is Zipcar. This company took a look at consumers that lived in a city and didn’t own a car but needed to get out of the city for a few hours. Their problem statement likely looked something like this:

“An adult person in a city needs a way to easily travel outside the city for a few hours because they don’t want to pay the high costs of keeping a car in a city and can’t access their desired location through public transit.”


This sentence identifies the user, need and insight and combines all three elements into an actionable problem statement that can drive brainstorming and innovation in the next phase – ideation.


Breaking Free of the Past


In our next article, we’ll move on to the most productive and (and often the most fun!) stage: Ideation. Stay tuned!


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