How to Write a Problem Statement for Design Thinking

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In today’s post, I’ll show you exactly how to write a problem statement and give you some practical steps and exercises to start immediately.

Let’s dive right in.

Why Do We Use Problem Statements in Design Thinking?

Problem statements are used in the Design Thinking process to help you stay focused and make good decisions.

A problem statement is a short description of a specific problem that needs to be solved. It’s used to help teams understand the problem so they can work towards solving it.

A good problem statement highlights the gap between where you are and where you want to get to. When businesses and designers want to make something better, a problem statement tells them what’s wrong and needs to be fixed.

We also use problem statements to prioritize where we should focus our attention. For example, we might have a list or backlog of problem statements arranged in the order of how important they are to solve. We can work down the list and start new projects to solve the problems.

“A problem well stated, is a problem half solved.”

John Dewey

What’s the Difference Between a Good and a Bad Problem Statement?

A problem statement template

A good problem statement is clear and easy to understand, it includes relevant and useful information, and it’s based on the evidence you’ve collected from user research.

A problem statement tells you who has the problem, what the problem is, when it happens, where it happens, and most importantly, why the problem is happening.

They should be insightful and help you understand details about the problem that helps you solve it. A problem statement shouldn’t tell you how to solve the problem or how to approach solving the problem; it simply states what the problem is. 

If it’s a big, complicated problem, writing a longer, more descriptive problem statement is ok. If it’s a small, simple problem, then one or two sentences will do.

If a problem statement is difficult to understand, it won’t get solved very well. You could end up solving the wrong problem, or it could end up wasting your time and money.

A good problem statement is broad enough that you can start thinking of lots of different ideas and directions and narrow enough to focus on what’s important and stay on track.

How Do You Write a Problem Statement for Design Thinking?

Identify problem, define problem, write statement

In the design thinking process, during the empathy stage, we gather the information we need to help us understand the problem. This is the part where we do all the user research to help us understand our customer’s needs (user needs). 

Once we have the user needs and we’ve got some insight into the problems they have, we move into the define phase. This is where we decide who we should design for and what problem we should solve. We decide who the specific user is and what is their core problem.

An effective problem statement will make sure we’re solving the right problem when we move into the next stage – ideation. Ideation is when we generate ideas and look for a creative solution to our problem. The problem statement will be used during ideation to keep us focused on user needs.

Identify the Problem

In some cases, the problem might be felt so strongly that it’s easy to identify. 

For example, you might have noticed a big drop in conversions since you added some new features to your landing page. In this case, since you have an idea of what the problem is, you can jump to the next step and start defining the problem.

Sometimes, it might not be obvious what problems there are and which ones need fixing. This is often the case when we’re being proactive and trying to find ways to improve our design and user experience.

Spend some time thinking about which parts of your design are really important to get right. Which parts matter most to your customers and your stakeholders? Which parts haven’t been improved in a while and might need some love?

Exercise
What parts of the design matter most to your customers and stakeholders? Which parts are old and could do with some improvement? Brainstorm some ideas to help you find some areas worth investigating.

Now that you know where to look for problems, you can start your investigation. Your goal is to spend some time talking to people and looking at data to help you find a problem worth solving.

Here’s a list of ways you could get the information you need to make a decision on where to focus your attention: 

  • Speak to stakeholders (stakeholder interviews)
  • Speak to a product manager (SME interviews)
  • Speak to customers (Customer interviews)
  • Look at Google Analytics (Data analysis)
  • Go through the design yourself (Current state review)
  • Send out a survey (Quantitative survey). 

For the best results, use a mix of these methods. That way, you’ll get a well-rounded view of what people are experiencing and where you can help them.

Exercise
In what ways will you gather information to help you identify some problems to solve? Write down where you’ll look, who you’ll need to help you, and how you’ll do it.

Define the Problem

The first step in solving a problem is understanding the problem.

You can only successfully solve a problem if you fully understand it.

It’s natural to want to jump straight in and have a go at solving the problem before you’ve fully understood it. But, trust me, you’ll get it right more often when you take the time to really describe the problem in detail and spell out the important parts so that anyone can understand it.

Sometimes a problem might be so big and complicated that we need to break it down into lots of smaller problems.

To get a better understanding of the problem, you’ll need to find people who can help. You’ll need to speak to people with more experience with the problem than you. 

For example, who can you speak to that has seen the impact of the problem firsthand? Maybe some customer service staff or someone from the research or analytics team? Who is it that’s being directly impacted by the problem? Are they customers or employees? Can you speak to them and ask them about their experiences with the problem? 

Sometimes, there’s more to the problem than what’s being felt or observed. For example, there could be a technical limitation that makes life more difficult for people. Maybe someone in the business decided that the problem isn’t worth solving because it’s too expensive or time-consuming compared to their other goals.

To find out, see if you can find other people in the business or the product team that might know more about why the problem exists or how it came to be. 

For example, is there someone in the business that’s responsible for the area where the problem exists? Who might have worked on the problem in the past? Are there any people in the business that have been there a long time that could give you some background information?

Exercise
Who can help you to learn more about the problem? Brainstorm some ideas on a piece of paper.
Exercise
What did you learn from speaking to them? List at least 3 things you learned on a piece of paper.

Write the Problem Statement

Your problem statement will be used to get your project approved and get your team’s support to solve it.

Take your time to write a clear, accurate problem statement that’s easy to understand. Make sure that when you read it, you feel like you know how to get started and what you can do to begin to solve the problem – make it actionable.

If a problem statement isn’t written very well, or it’s difficult to understand, then it won’t lead to a very good solution. You could end up wasting the time and effort of your team. 

Improve your chances of successfully solving the problem by keeping it focused on the person who experiences the problem – the end user. Write the problem statement from the point of view of the end user. Include details about how it’s affecting them and the goals they’re trying to achieve.

Use the problem statement to describe the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Be careful not to make it so narrow that it describes one particular solution and keep it broad enough that it inspires lots of ideas.

There are lots of different ways to write a problem statement and many different formats. 

Here’s an example of a structure that will work in most cases:

– Who is experiencing the problem?

– What is the problem they experience?

– When do they experience the problem?

– Why is it important to solve?

Exercise
Write your own problem statement using this template. Do a few different versions and try to get a feel for the different angles you could look at your problem from. Choose the one that feels right.

What Are Some Examples of Good and Bad Problem Statements?

Here are 5 examples of well-written problem statements that inspire ideas and give clues on how you could get started solving the problem:

  • People who travel by train aren’t made aware of disruptions impacting their route when they view departure and arrival times. This makes disruptions unavoidable and leads to frustrating journeys and missed appointments.
  • Landlords comparing remortgage options don’t have all the information they need to make a decision; this leads to the wrong choices and lost money when they change their minds later.
  • Users who have opted out of marketing messages complain that they don’t receive notifications when we award them with points. This costs them more money and makes them feel under appreciated as customers.
  • New mums that need support get overwhelmed by conflicting childcare advice when they search online, making them feel confused, alone, and unsupported.
  • Students taking more than four modules find it challenging to see when their assignments are due if they have more than 5 due dates, meaning they miss deadlines and lose marks.

Here are 5 examples of poorly written problem statements that don’t inspire ideas in the right way or make it unclear where to start:

  • People find it challenging to complete important tasks on our app.
  • People need to see all of the data in one view.
  • Customers are frustrated that they are losing money. We need an innovative solution.
  • New mums don’t feel informed enough to care for their babies confidently; they need a 24-hour service to call for advice.
  • Students aren’t sure when assignments are due, they need a new system that organizes class assignments by the due date.
Exercise
Read through the statements above, and based on the tips in this article, think about WHY they are good or bad statements.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you have multiple problem statements?

Yes, you certainly can have multiple problem statements. Complex problems can sometimes be too big to manage in one go. If this is the case for your problem, then absolutely, break it down into more manageable chunks. You can have an overarching problem statement and then a list of smaller problem statements that each address different parts of the problem. That way, you can plan many smaller projects or run another Design Sprint to iterate your way toward solving the bigger problem.

Is a problem statement the same as a research question?

They aren’t the same, but they are similar. A problem statement describes a problem, and we then attempt to solve that problem. Whereas a research question states something that you’d like to learn. We then do some research to achieve our learning objective. When you conduct user research, you’ll typically start by writing some research questions; you’ll then do some activities to get those learnings. Once you’ve gathered some information, you can then use it to write a problem statement.

Can a problem statement be a question?

Yes, you can phrase your problem statement as a question if that’s what works for you. Sometimes people prefer to write opportunity statements, HMW statements, a POV statement, or an innovation challenge statement. As long as it still addresses a real problem and gives you enough insight to make it actionable, then it’s ok. 

Conclusion

A problem statement is a short description of an issue that needs to be addressed. It identifies the gap between the current state and the desired state. 

A good actionable problem statement should be clear, specific, measurable, and achievable. You need a problem statement when you want to improve a design, solve a design challenge, or discover an innovative potential solution. 

When writing your problem statement, consider who your stakeholders are and their needs. Involving stakeholders in the process helps ensure everyone is on the same page from the start, making smooth sailing down the road. 

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