Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Leeds & Institute of Coding's online course, Get Creative with People to Solve Problems. Join the course to learn more.

Defining the problem

Did you change your mind about the cause of Tariq’s lateness after you listened to the interview?

It can be easy to jump to conclusions based on limited information. The first two phases of the human-centred design process, empathise and define, help you to understand the situation and uncover the underlying causes of problems.

Defining a problem by reviewing your research and narrowing down your insights to establish the main challenge helps ensure you’re attacking the real problem and not just a symptom of the problem. The work you do in the definition phase is also important to help you communicate the problem to stakeholders, that is people who have an interest in your design process but aren’t the actual people who have the problem.

Synthesise your research

As you empathised by observing and talking to people, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What stood out?
  • What did you notice?
  • What needs did you discover?

The first step in defining your problem is to synthesise your research findings to look for themes, insights and patterns.

We decided to summarise our interview with Tariq in two ways: by creating an empathy map and a user journey map.

As you saw in the example last week, the empathy map should summarise the things Tariq does and his pains and gains. These are the things we can improve or build on.

Image of User Journey Map Example of a user journey map

The user journey map should give an overview of Tariq’s interactions, behaviour and emotions over time, visually summarising what happens as he gets ready for work from Tariq’s viewpoint.

As we build the user journey map based on the interview, we look for places where there are opportunities to make the process smoother.

User journey maps help all the stakeholders involved share the same understanding of a process and can be created collaboratively in workshops. This is especially useful if you’re working in a situation where different people or departments deal with different aspects of a customer’s experience, as they expose the gaps and ‘joins’ between those elements.

Define the problem

Creating a clear, simple outline of a problem is surprisingly hard to do.

A good problem definition statement should identify who has the problem, outline the key need they have and why they have that need. It should reframe the problem to help us come up with ideas to fix it in the next phase of the HCD process.

Using standard wording can make this task easier. One common way of writing a simple outline of a problem is as a ‘user story’:

As a… (who is the user?) I want to… (what do they want to do?)
so that I can… (why do they want to do this?).
How might we…. ? (what need can we help meet?)

In Tariq’s case, we could write one of his problems like this:

As Tariq, I want to find the right pair of trainers quickly so that I can get out of the house in time to catch my bus.
How might we help Tariq find his trainers quicker?

The user story format tells you about the immediate need the person has, but also how that helps them reach their bigger goal.

The How might we…? question is a powerful way of framing a problem statement, as it encourages speculative thinking. Asking the question from the point of view of the person with the problem rather than the business or organisation, and making it specific and actionable, will help you come up with more ideas in the next phase of the HCD process.

Validate your outputs

Once you’ve defined your problems or created design documents like user journey maps, it’s important to validate them. You should check them with the people you’re designing for to make sure they accurately capture their experience. Checking them with stakeholders also helps everyone understand and agree the direction your design project will take.

Have a go:

In the last step you identified many problems that contribute to Tariq arriving late for work. Pick one which you are interested in solving and try expressing it using the format given above.

As a… (who is the user?) I want to… (what do they want to do?) so that I can… (why do they need to do this?). How might we… (what need can we help meet?)

Share your user story in the Comments. You may find others who come up with similar ideas, or discover new ways of seeing the problem.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Get Creative with People to Solve Problems

University of Leeds