Problem Statement

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What is Problem Statement?

Problem statements are concise descriptions of design problems. Design teams use them to define the current and ideal states, to freely find user-centered solutions. Then, they use these statements—also called points of view (POVs)—as reference points throughout a project to measure the relevance of ideas they produce[DHM1] .

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

— Albert Einstein

Problem Statements are like Compasses in the Wilderness of Ideation

Well-constructed, valid problem statements are vital for your design team to navigate the entire design process. Essential to design thinking, problem statements are what teams produce in the Define stage. To find the best solutions, your team must know what the exact problems are—i.e., you first need to define a problem statement. The goal is to articulate the problem so everyone can see its dimensions and feel inspired to systematically hunt for suitable solutions. When you unite around a problem statement, your team will have a common view of how users see what they must tackle. From there, all your team will know exactly what to look for and what to avoid. Therefore, you should make your problem statements:

  1. Human-centered: Frame problem statements from insights about users and their needs.
  2. Have the right scope:
    1. Broad enough to permit creative freedom, so you don’t concentrate too narrowly on specific methods for implementing solutions or describing technical needs; but
    2. Narrow enough to be practicable, so you can eventually find specific solutions.
  3. Based on an action-oriented verb (e.g., “create” or “adapt”).
  4. Fully developed and assumption-free.

Design teams sometimes refer to a problem statement as a “point of view” (POV) because they should word problem statements from the users perspective and not let bias influence them. Your team will have a POV when it comes up with a narrowly focused definition of the right challenge to pursue in the next stage of the design process. With an effective POV, your team can approach the right problem in the right way. Therefore, you’ll be able to seek the solutions your users want.

How to Define Problem Statements through a Point of View Madlib

To define a problem statement, your team must first examine recorded observations about users. You must capture your users’ exact profile in the problem statement or POV. So, you need to synthesize research results and produce insights that form solid foundations. From these, you can discover what those specific users really require and desire—and therefore ideate effectively. Teams typically use a POV madlib to reframe the challenge meaningfully into an actionable problem statement. The POV madlib is a framework you use to place the user, need and insight in the best way. This is the format to follow:

[User… (descriptive)] needs [need … (verb)] because [insight… (compelling).]

A Point of View Madlib is a good way to frame an actionable problem statement.

With a valid problem statement, your team can explore the framed “why” questions with “how”-oriented ones. That’s how you proceed to find potential solutions. You’ll know you have a good problem statement if team members:

  1. Feel inspired.
  2. Have the criteria to evaluate ideas.
  3. Can use it to guide innovation efforts.
  4. Cant find a cause or a proposed solution in it (which would otherwise get in the way of proper ideation).

When your team has a good problem statement, everyone can compare ideas, which is vital in brainstorming and other ideation sessions. It also means everyone can keep on the right track. Problem statements are powerful aids because they encourage well-channeled divergent thinking. Rather than rush toward solutions that look impressive but aren’t effective, your team can work imaginatively to find the right ones. Once you’ve discovered what’s causing problems, you can give users the best solutions in designs they like using.

Learn More about Problem Statements

Take our course addressing problem statements:

See’s illustrations of problem statements in action:

Explore Toptal’s example-rich examination of problem statements:

This piece exposes practicalities of problem statements for startups:

Here’s a thought-provoking approach to problem statements: