Defining the Problem

by Luke Wroblewski April 20, 2006

I spent the past four days at the Art of Yahoo! conference with Yahoo’s Asian user experience design teams. There were a few recurring discussions about design’s role in the strategic planning process. Which found me frequently quoting Bob Baxley’s point from our recent Design Vision conversation, “He who defines the problem, defines the solution”. Let me explain why…

With any product design and development process, there’s a period early on when the team is defining their focus. They may be spurred by a market opportunity, an innovative idea, a need to address customer feedback, or more. Whatever the driver, there is always a need to define the “problem” or opportunity the team is addressing so that potential solutions can actually be evaluated as successful or not.

In many organizations, this problem is defined with a written or numerical representation of a market opportunity. Think business model, business requirements document, etc. While these documents are great at defining the aspirations (or net present value) of a product, they rarely fully define the problem a product team needs to address. What’s often missing is the relationship between the market, customer goals, and product ecosystem.

As analysts and representatives of end user requirements, designers are in a perfect place to reposition a “problem” (or market opportunity -if you prefer) to reflect the perspective of the customer. So instead of describing the problem from the standpoint of business goals, designers articulate it by outlining what it means for the end user of a product: the customer.

Reframing the problem in terms of customer needs enables a goal-directed design and development process: the team can define requirements with concrete use cases and user models. I believe this is what happens when a product team embraces a set of personas for their product. Personas define the problem: here are our users and their goals. User models work similarly: here are the type of users we need to address and their process (workflow).

Because they are creating a comprehensive user experience, designers need to think holistically. They have to understand the relationships between content, actions, and users. Often times, this includes other products and their connections: a product ecosystem. Defining the context of a market opportunity through its components, their relationships, and a product ecosystem is likely to reveal unexpected problems or opportunities. In other words it helps to define or redefine the problem.

It is also important to note that designers are able define markets, customer needs, and product relationships visually and with narrative. Personally, I can point to many concrete examples, where I have designed a visual representation of a “problem” that came to define the direction of a product design. Effective storytelling achieves the same effect -see Kevin Cheng’s Communicating with Comics for a great example.

Which brings me back to the conversations that prompted this discussion: how can design become part of the strategic process? As outlined above, my response is “by helping to define (or redefine) the problem your business needs to address.” Because they research and dissect user needs, designers are in a unique position to define a problem through the eyes of customers. Because they think and act holistically, designers are able to articulate relationships within a market, across product ecosystems, and between customer needs and business goals. Because they can communicate visually and with narrative, designers are able to effectively articulate these definitions to product teams and stakeholders.

Leverage these attributes of design and the value they create for an organization will buy you a place “at the table”.