What Problem Framing Could Be

One of the most powerful activities within design thinking is framing the problem. Probably more than any other activity, how you characterize the problem you’re solving is going to be the best predictor of whether you’ll come up with anything innovative in the first place. Questions are more important than answers.

Einstein famously said,

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

When I teach problem framing, I often use the example that trying to “build a better diabetes meter” will yield decidedly different solutions than “helping people manage their disease.”

In the typical “go do” cultures we exist and work in, we very quickly identify the “thing” we are going to do without taking a step back to understand the underlying “why(s)” or impact we are going to deliver in the first place. Is that “thing” or solution even valuable for the person it was originally intended for? We evaluate each other continually on the quality of our solutions, and celebrate the “ideas person”, but rarely do we reward the quality of our initial questions. I don’t know who to credit with this astute observation, but “problems persist, solutions evolve.”

Whenever I am given a directive or kicking off a project, I spend time with the team and starting with the original challenge, we ask a successive series of “Why? Why else?” questions and generate a series of answers in the form of “In order to …” or “So that …” You can conversely ask the question “How? How else?” and answer in the form of “By …” This technique is formally called Abstraction Laddering, but the overall purpose is to consider various re-characterizations of the original problem.

Fall in love with problems. Design beautiful questions.

Not only is this a worthwhile activity to stretch your thinking about what you are solving for, but you’ll also get the added benefit of gaining alignment on what you’re trying to do as a group. Are we at the right altitude or scope? Do we have limited time and need to make some quick progress? Do we always think tactical and need to explore more provocative questions?

All problems are not created equal. By deconstructing an individual challenge, you can also begin to evaluate which challenges have a higher relative impact to solve for in the first place. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Place a bet on high-value problems first.

Fall in love with problems. Design beautiful questions.

The Alternative Limb Project is a powerful story in problem framing. What if an artificial limb were viewed as an enhancement vs. a replacement?

“Far Out on a Limb” – New York Times

The Alternative Limb Project

The structure of the questions you ask, particularly when leading into ideation, can have a massive effect on outcomes.

Harvard Business Review

Photo by Lina Yatsen on Unsplash

Darren Evans