Why You Need to Know What Problem You’re Solving for Every Single Design Project

Designers. We are all elusive, creative geniuses right?

Well of course we are, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, we weren’t born this way. Design is a skill. Sure, it comes with plenty of gut feelings and innate talent, but the best designers aren’t strictly artists, they’re also great critical thinkers.

The best designers understand how to identify a problem and use their skills to solve it in the best way possible for the user.

Problems Are The Secret to Good Design

No matter what the project, identifying the goal or problem is a must.

If there is no problem to solve, you’ve set your designer off on a path without direction that may produce visually beautiful results, but lacks intention. Their sites look amazing! Some serious attention to detail has been put into each pixel that completely delivers aesthetically.

But while it may deliver visually, it completely lacks in user-oriented solutions.

These websites usually have some similar traits:

  • They use a lot of “we” as opposed to “you” phrasing
  • The order of on-page elements serves to highlight the brand (awards, press-releases, products), as opposed to helping the user alleviate their pain points as quickly as possible
  • They aren’t converting leads, and why would they since they are focused on what a brand offers versus how they can help

Because there was no specific problem identified at the beginning of the design phase, the designer simply created a beautiful online brochure that never had any intention of helping the user solve a problem or in turn, helping the brand achieve a goal.

The intention of any website should be the same every time: solve for the user.

Without the user, there would be no need for design at all. You need to make sure your website or project’s aim is to deliver answers and value to the user. But, solving for the user is trickier than it sounds. To do it effectively, you must understand your user, their wants, needs, and most importantly the desires they don’t know they have.

So, how do you even begin going about solving for the users unknown intentions?

Well, I’m glad you asked…

Tackling Design Problems

What is a design problem exactly?

Design problems aren’t your average dilemmas. In fact, they usually have a single component that sets them apart from all others: the need to solve for unconscious desires. One of the most famous examples of this is Henry Ford upon building the Model T. He said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Ford understood that horses were too slow, but that wasn’t the problem to be solved. There was a much deeper need that his customers couldn’t articulate because they couldn’t fathom the solution.

Design problems focus on the user’s purpose, not just the unwelcome pain or situation.Ford ultimately understood that his customers needed to get from one place to another faster.

This unique distinction helped him create something that didn’t exist rather than improve what already was.

Framing the Problem

Once the problem is identified, you need to give it context in order to fully understand it. Framing a problem with a statement narrow enough will bring focus to a designer, but it also needs to be broad enough for creativity. When a problem is properly framed and deeply seeded in your user’s purpose, you can easily see the types of barriers that are in the way of reaching your ultimate goal.

Better yet, it acts as a very necessary filter. It rules out the superfluous and irrelevant ideas (you know, the “make it pop” ones?) and only allows room for ideas that meet the user’s needs.

Framing problems also brings a shared perspective. When everyone is working towards the same goal, the process becomes more efficient. So, how do you get started framing a problem effectively?

You gather your stakeholders and you ask four simple questions:

  • Who is affected? Who is experiencing the problem and how specific can we describe them?
  • What is the problem? What are the struggles and what ultimately needs to be accomplished? Are there pain points that need to be relieved?
  • Where does it happen? What context does the user experience this problem?
  • Why does it matter? Why is this a problem worth solving and what value does this bring to the user?

All of these questions will lead you to the goal of creating a problem statement.

Problem Statements

Problem statements are kind of structured sentences with blank spaces to fill with your specific insights. This “template” helps to create a statement that is concise, but also fully rooted in your own research. Remember, you want to be specific enough to share a vision of the solution, but be broad enough to allow for creativity.

Here are two examples:

From the point of view of the user:

“I am (persona) trying to (verb), but (pain point or barrier) because (a specific cause) which makes me feel (emotional response).

From user research:

“(Persona) needs a way to (user’s need) because (insight from research).”

Every single problem statement should always be human-entered. Every problem is about the people you are trying to help, first and foremost. Technology and revenue are byproducts of great problem statements that have led to the most innovative of solutions.

So, how do we ensure that we are approaching every design project with a problem to solve?

We utilise the Design Thinking methodology. I know, breaking design down to a methodology feels weird; it lacks all that creative edge, but hear me out.

What Is Design Thinking?

Stay with me, I’m going to break down the “why” and the “what” of this process, so you can go back and determine the “how” for your organisation.

Design Thinking is a methodology that can be applied to more than just design. It  is a methodology used for both practical and creative problem solving that is user-centric, existing to focus on humans. It seeks to understand a user’s needs and determine the most effective solutions to meet those needs.

You can think of it as a solution-based approach to problem solving.

What Is the Design Thinking Process?

As you can likely conclude, the Design Thinking process is meant to be both iterative and highly user-centric.

It consists of four principles and five phases.

The Four Principles of Design Thinking

These four principles were laid out by Chistophy Meinel and Harry Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design at Stanford University, California. You can access their full research here.

1. The Human Rule

Design is a response to the user’s social circumstance; a decision made based on usually negative consequences endured by someone. Any innovation to this will still require action from someone trying to solve for the user first.

2. The Ambiguity Rule

Ambiguity is inevitable and this cannot be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in being able to see things differently when faced with it.

3. The Redesign Rule

All design is redesign. While technology and social circumstances may change and evolve, basic human needs remain unchanged. We only redesign the means of fulfilling these needs.

4. The Tangibility Rule

Making ideas tangible in the form of prototypes enables designers to communicate them more effectively. (Think of this as the “I’ll know it when I see it” rule!) Now, if you really think about and embrace them, these principles are quite liberating.

With them, as the problem solver, you’re free from the pressures of having to have the exact right answer every single time you approach a problem. This set of principles is specific, but doesn’t tell you how to go about solving the problem.

They establish guidelines that need to be met, but allow the problem solver to experiment, embrace naysayers, stay humble, and most importantly, stay focused on solving for the user.

The Five Phases of Design Thinking

Phase 1: Empathise

Empathy is the critical starting point for Design Thinking. As a problem solver, you have to understand the needs of your users.

What do they want? What do they need? What are they trying to solve for themselves?

Set your own personal assumptions aside and collect data about your users on an emotional level. Suspend your own view of the world around you and see it through your user’s eyes.

Trying to replicate their emotional journey, do you understand where their frustrations lie?

The ultimate goal is to better understand your user’s motivations and that isn’t always obvious. It requires an extreme effort to observe your users with a blank mindset and a genuine curiosity to understand “why.”

Phase 2: Define the Problem

What you may have had in mind as “the problem” could have changed entirely after the Empathise phase. In the Emphasise phase, we analysed everything we observed and discovered into smaller components: what, why, and how.

In the define stage, we bring those smaller components back together to synthesise our findings to create a highly detailed overall picture. This overall picture is your ultimate design challenge and the first step to creating a well-defined problem statement.

Problem statements (we’ll focus more on these later in the article, they are extremely important!) Frame the problem or need in a way that is actionable for designers.


Phase 3: Ideate

This is where all that elusive, creative genius happens.

In a strict, judgement-free zone, problem solvers will identify as many new angles and ideas for a solution as they can muster.

Sometimes the right call might be brainstorming, or mind mapping, or sketching, the possibilities are limitless. Ideating is different for every designer and every organisation.

But what’s the same is that at the end of this session, you should have your ideas narrowed down to a handful you can move forward with.

Phase 4: Prototype

This phase is all about tangibility.

You’ll want to experiment with how to best implement the solutions found in the previous stages and actually create a tangible product that you can test.

We call this a prototype. It allows designers to showcase their work through an interactive and engaging product resulting in a much better understanding of the solution for everyone involved.

How far you take your prototype is up to you, but to get the most value out of these phases, it may be best to have the prototype be usable and not just conceptual. Here is an example from proto.io. As a potential user, you can click around inside of the mobile device to see how the site would potentially function on mobile.

This step can actually be comprised of many steps. Just because you’ve prototyped an idea doesn’t mean it stands as is. Continue to experiment and challenge your solution. You may quickly find that some ideas are best left in this stage, while others merit enough of a refined solution to move on to Phase 5.


Phase 5: Test

After finally landing on a few prototypes that you feel are indicative of the best solution possible, send it out into the wild!

You’ll want to test your prototypes to see if they hold up to all of your assumptions.

Testing can be a tricky phase. You’ll want to make sure your test is planned, your participants have been properly vetted as the best subjects for testing, and then you’ll want to have a plan in place for how to analyse your data and inform next steps.

Often you’ll find that this phase takes you back to one of the previous phases. That isn’t a defeat! It’s simply narrowing down the problem and potential solutions.

If your tests are successful, congratulations! You’ve solved for the user in the most effective way possible. You’ll likely move on to finalizing the product and launching it in the “real world.”

Even if you make it to a successful launch, however, keep your head in this phase. Design can always be improved upon, and don’t forget you’ll need to change your solution based on social circumstances. Always be testing and always be trying to find the next solution.

It’s a Non-Linear Process

While there may appear to be a very linear sequence to these phases, you can often find yourself looping back and around these phases. With every new discovery, you may need to challenge phases you already thought were set in stone.

The only rule is to keep a user-first mentality.

Why Does This Matter?

I know, we’ve listed a lot of fancy terms and methodologies, and all of that is great and maybe some of it is even clicking. But honestly, why does this matter so much?

Your website exists solely for your users. Let that sink in.

Your website isn’t your crowning glory. It’s not there for your sales team, it’s not there for your CEO, and it certainly isn’t there for your marketing team. Your website must solve your users’ problems.

When a user lands on your website, they are there to help alleviate a very specific pain point. Is your content, design, and overall UX focused on helping your users? If it isn’t, take a step back.

Think about all of the principles and phases we’ve discussed in this article.

You can’t start trying to solve for you user until you have a complete understanding of your user’s behaviour, their desires, and their needs. You have to define this as the problem you are trying to solve.

Otherwise, you are never going to design a solution that alleviates their pain points.

If you approach your next website redesign as simply a task, telling your designer, “you’re the expert, go make it fabulous” you aren’t only doing your business a disservice by ignoring your users specific pain points, but you’ve taken the stance that your potential customers aren’t worth a tailored solution.

We designers are visual problem solvers. Not just task takers who will make things look and work the way you want them to.

If you don’t allow your designer to help identify and solve a problem for your user’s, you’re wasting their potential as critical thinkers. More importantly you’re wasting your design spend on a product that will not achieve your goals.

Would you do that for a marketing plan? For PPC activity? For a social campaign?

Absolutely not.

Stop talking to your designer as “one of those creatives” who just knows Photoshop well. Start involving them in discussions about your users.

Ask them to explain how they arrived at certain solutions and work together to creative problem statements moving into creative redesigns.

Take these principles back to your co-workers and brainstorm ways to implement them into new or existing processes.

Caring deeply for and about your users will always create the best possible product.

Don’t design without understanding your problem statement. Seriously, don’t. Jessie-Lee


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