Problem framing – make sure you’re solving the right problem

We think problem framing is a missing piece in a designer’s toolkit.

The process of designing can be incredibly convoluted, complex and demanding depending on how your business functions. Whether it’s building a mobile app to go alongside your business or developing a website for your growing startup, the design phase is an important component that is used to improve the overall user experience without creating more hindrances in the future.

Design at its core is a problem-solving activity. Designers make things to solve issues. This can include designing websites that fit on a variety of screen sizes and aspect ratios or building a quality user experience by improving the navigation on your mobile app. But these are simple examples at their core because they’ve already been explored and solved in the past–so what do you do about a completely new problem and what’s involved in the process?

Before we run a Design Sprint, we’ll often run a problem framing workshop just to make sure we’re aligned as an agency and product team on which problem we’re trying to solve.

We often focus on the wrong problem

During a design process, it can often be confusing to delve into one problem after another. It can lead to a lot of unnecessary information and useful insights can often be lost due to a jumble of text and twisted connections that are easy to confuse. So in order to keep your problem-solving on point, succinct and legible, laddering techniques can be used.

The challenge is we often focus on the symptom of the problem rather than reframing the initial statement as a path to solutions.

We want to make sure we’ve correct framed the problem first, so we an exercise called abstraction laddering to do this.

At the core of laddering are two simple questions; why and how. “How” questions typically lead to very specific statements while “why” questions can lead to abstract ones. Abstract statements can be meaningful but are hard to use as examples. On the other hand, “how” statements are easier to act on but not as meaningful.

Abstraction laddering will help us frame the problem

To use abstraction laddering, start with a meaningful need. Let’s start with an example; designing a better electric car. From that one specific need, you can climb up into “why” questions and down into “how” questions.

Step 1

Step 1 is very simple. Just start with a blank sheet of paper and a pen. We love a sharpie because it makes you be concise with your writing.

Step 2

Write the problem you’re trying to solve in the middle and draw a box around. Just write down the problem as it appears in your head, don’t try to be clever.

Step 3

You’re now going to ask yourself ‘Why?’. Why are we trying to design a better electric car. We want to understand the problem on a deeper level.

Step 4

Our first why is to save the planet. A very noble cause!

Step 5

We now reframe the the why as a challenge. Something we can start creatively thinking about. We do this by adding ‘How might we’ to the start of it and rewrite the statement to make sense.

For example, ‘How might we help people save the planet?’. All of a sudden, our problem solving part of the brain is now switched on.

Step 6

We can now be more concrete with our answers by answering the how. This supports the ladder we’ve just created.

Step 7

But we don’t stop now with just one ladder. We ask ourselves Why else now to find other parts to solve.

Step 8

And we repeat this until we run out of problems and we’ve created all of our ladders.

Problem framing

Delving deep behind the reasons for a problem in order to solve it effectively

Let’s pose a problem.

A building is due for renovation and one of the most common complaints from tenants is that the elevator is too slow. It’s old, they have to wait a long time and there are a couple of tenants that are even considering moving to a newer building. From the wording itself, it’s clear that one of the most obvious solutions to this issue is to increase the speed of the elevator. This is because the problem as described by the tenants is that the elevator is “too slow”.

So the potential solution could be to install a new elevator or upgrade the elevator. However, this can be incredibly expensive, time-consuming and difficult to perform because it involves many different factors. We need to hire contractors, we need to shut down the lifts for several days and this could create even more problems for the tenants. This is a brute-force method of tackling an issue because we’re taking the solution and applying the most straightforward path to “fix” it.

This is where reframing a problem can come in handy.

Rather than focusing on the issue of a slow elevator, we can reframe this problem and design a more elegant solution. Let’s start by breaking down the issue and looking beyond what the tenants have complained about so that we can find other ways to tackle it.

First, let’s discuss why the tenants are upset about the elevator.

  • They don’t like waiting around
  • Standing around is boring
  • The inside isn’t attractive
  • They have nothing to do to pass the time

These are five possible reasons why the tenants are complaining about the slow elevator in the first place. So if we reframe the problem and find solutions to these issues, we can find alternative solutions.

  • Put up mirrors in the elevator so that tenants can check their appearance and prepare themselves for their destination
  • Add music to make the wait less boring
  • Make the inside more attractive with pictures
  • Install a hand sanitizer so they can clean their hands if they’re worried about the cleanliness of the elevator

As you can see, we’ve effectively sidestepped the “real” problem by dealing with it in a different way. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking a brute-force approach and simply installing a new elevator, but that’s, as explained, very expensive, very time-consuming and could frustrate more tenants for several days.

To conclude, the point of reframing a problem like this isn’t to avoid the issue at hand, but to see if there are other ways to deal with the issue. By examining the issue in more detail, we can find alternative solutions that are more elegant, more efficient and ultimately make consumers happier. Assuming that there is a single problem and a single solution is misleading and it’s important to brainstorm ideas in order to frame a problem in a different way to ensure that we’re making the most of our resources.

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