Design Thinking ICM512

The Define Stage: Where Problems Are Your Guide

Problem-statements in design thinking are a good thing. They invite focus and clarity into your work.

I moved to Sydney from the U.S. in 2008. The first generation of the iPhone was released, but of course, as a recent college grad, I didn’t own one of those yet. Instead, I familiarized myself with my new city by wandering aimlessly through it—with zero access to navigation or the internet once I stepped out my front door. This experience sparked my curiosity and excitement for exploration—except for the times it just frustrated the heck out of me!

On occasion, I would already be out, and my plans would suddenly change (as plans tend to do). One time I arrived at a printer’s studio by following my scribbled mapquest notes to discover it was now a Thai restaurant. Suddenly I needed to find a new high-quality, affordable printer near me that could turn my job around within 24 hours. I walked blindly and endlessly through the city, hoping to stumble upon the answer to my problem. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I still hoped to get to where I needed.

Mapquest was the google and apple maps of 2008…just not available in your pocket at all times. Writing or printing out your directions before you left the house was how to get around back then—which usually meant everyone was late to everything! Image from Mashable.

This type of blind navigation also happens in design when we don’t know what exactly we are solving for. We draft up cocktails of cool ideas, but we don’t know what purpose they actually serve. Without a specific problem to solve, we end up solving for everything and nothing all at once.

Without a specific problem to solve, we ended up solving for everything and nothing all at once.

The Define stage in design thinking is a devised to prevent this wasteful (in time, energy, and money) cycle. In the Define stage, you synthesize all of the research and data collected in the Empathize phase and identify the problem you are trying to solve for your users. Once identified, your communicate your insights through a problem statement. As Emily Stevens from Career Foundry says, “Without a well-defined problem statement, it’s hard to know what you’re aiming for. Your work will lack focus, and the final design will suffer.”

Without a well-defined problem statement, it’s hard to know what you’re aiming for. Your work will lack focus, and the final design will suffer.”

Emily Stevens, Career Foundry

Thoughtful and well-crafted problem statements are crucial for the success of your product. They provide a clear goal for your team to solve and give your project a measurement for success. Throughout the project, you should refer back to your problem statement and ask yourself if the solutions you are designing address that problem. Constructing a solid problem-statement now will result in better ideas and solutions later.

How to Construct a Problem Statement

A problem statement identifies the user, their challenge, and the reasons they face that challenge. You can utilize certain exercise methods to pull this information out of your research, like affinity maps, examining the 4 W’s, or the 5 Whys. After you identify your problem, formulate it into a concise statement using the following structure: Activity or action is a challenge for user because reason(s).

A problem statement should identify a user, an activity, and the reasons for their challenge. Sentence format sourced from Aaron Benajamin at

Qualities of a Good Problem Statement

Certain qualities make problem statements useful to your project and team. Consider the following when crafting your own.

A good problem statement
1. focuses on people.

Employ your empathy skills into constructing problem statements and focus on the user’s needs rather than the business goals or technology.

2. provides clarity.

A problem statement should feel clear and focused. If your problem statement is too general, it becomes harder to solve for. Solving for a vague everything is much more complicated than solving for a specific something. 

3. encourages creative thinking.

Although it should be specific, a problem statement should not propose a solution or feel too prescriptive. Make sure your problem statements invites a vast array of possible creative solutions.

4. is actionable.

Problem statements should use verbs, not nouns. This small detail is like an alarm going off in the brain—it sparks creative thinking and propels the project forward energetically.

Problem Statements Examples

Design problems exist all around us—which means there are plenty of opportunities to develop problem statements! Since Undercover Boss is still fresh on my mind, I’ve crafted some good and bad examples of problem statements based on scenarios from the Dippin’ Dots episode. I hope these exampless promote better understanding.

Example 1: Clouded Vision

Amber is giving Brad a tour of the facilities, and they step into the production room. Heavy fog fills the entire space and obstructs their vision.

The fog in here sometimes gets so bad that you can’t see, and we have to clear out.

Amber, Operations Manager at Dippin’ Dots
Seeing where she is going is a challenge for Amber because the liquid nitrogen and cold temperatures from the machinery forms a heavy fog that fills the entire room.

The production room is a challenge for Amber because the machines create fog.

Not specific enough, not actionable

Example 2: Slippery Situations

Amber is teaching Brad how to package the product, which requires fast-paced movements across the room. The floors are wet from the machinery, and Brad struggles not to slip.

Slips and falls is the No. 1 safety hazard around here so you just have to kinda watch where you’re going.

Amber, Operations Manager at Dippin’ Dots
Walking without slipping is a challenge for Amber because the floors are incredibly slippery, and the work requires fast-paced movements.

Safety is a challenge for Dippin’ Dots because the slippery floors can lead to lawsuits.

Not people-focused, not actionable

Example 3: Cold Conditions

Brandon is showing Brad the below 50-degree freezer where good product is usually stored. He points out that the freezer is over-packed with products that aren’t supposed to be there.

This stuff that’s on the wall shouldn’t even be here, it should be on the rack, but we have nowhere else to put them.

Brandon, Warehouse Operator at Dippin’ Dots
Storing the right products in the freezer is a challenge for Brandon because the bad product is occupying most of his storage space.

Warehouse space is a challenge for Dippin’ Dots because the storage room is too small for the capacity of product.

Too prescriptive (does not encourage creative problem solving), not actionable, not people-focused

Example 4: Hard Feelings

Brandon is sharing his experience with wages at Dippin’ Dots with Brad. He expresses disappointment that he has never been given a single raise or bonus in five years with the company —despite receiving positive evaluations and reviews.

If I could find somewhere better that’ll move me up quicker over time, I’ll go.

Brandon, Warehouse Operator at Dippin’ Dots
Expressing positive emotions about Dippin’ Dots is a challenge for Brandon because he does not feel valued or appreciated by the company.

Financially rewarding employees is a challenge for Dippin Dots because it reduces the company’s annual profits up to $300,000/year.

Not people-focused

Example 5: Subpar Set-ups

Anita and Brad just lugged all of their equipment from the trunk of the car to their tent. They are setting up to sell Dippin’ Dots at the park when an Environmental Health officer stops by and identifies several issue with their set-up.

Next time around, we definitely have to do better because this is not a good setup.

Environmental Health Officer
Selling Dippin’ Dots at the park is a challenge for Anita because her current set-up doesn’t meet environmental health code requirements.

Selling food is a challenge for Anita because she doesn’t have sneeze guards.

Too prescriptive (does not encourage creative problem solving)

Hope this article helped educate your on the power of problem-statements and how you can incorporate them into your next project.

References and Resources

How To Define A Problem Statement: Your Guide To The Second Step In The Design Thinking Process by Career Foundry

Stage 2 in the Design Thinking Process: Define the Problem and Interpret the Results

Design: How to define the problem by

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