Steps in Design Thinking, Part 2: Define


In the first part of this 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 begin 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. There will certainly be some overlap with the next stage because problem definitions normally imply solutions and spark ideas. It’s important to keep the stages separate though, or your team will be swept away in trying to figure out the how questions before they fully understand why.

Asking why things are they way they are, and why people are unhappy with that, exposes hidden assumptions that lay beneath the status quo. When customer 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. What customers say and what they do are very different, as too many startups discovered by addressing problems that didn’t really matter to paying customers.

6 Qualifiers of a Great Problem Statement

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

-Puts a spotlight on a specific problem and encapsulates the chain of actions around the pain point

-Feels significant enough to motivate your team

-Suggests criteria for evaluating proposed solutions to the issue

-Gives you team enough space to investigate answers independently and simultaneously

-Sparks recognition and relief in the eyes of customers

-Points the way forward to the idea generation stage

A perfect example of excellence in defining the problem statement involves starvation in Vietnam. In the 1990s, two thirds of all children under 5 in the country were malnourished. Outside aid organizations tried and failed to solve the problem by increased distribution of supplements. Design thinkers redefined the problem as “How do we help families nourish their children?” The solution was free cooking classes using local foods and techniques copied from very poor local families who had healthy children. Design thinkers were literal life savers.

Breaking Free of the Past

In our next article, we’ll move on to the most productive and often fun stage: Ideation. Far too many teams making the mistake of starting here with creative brainstorming exercises before they have a solid problem definition of what they are trying to solve, resulting in great innovations that customers don’t want. Join us for a complex and counter-intuitive dive into designing with the customer in mind.