Define: Confirming the Problem Statement

The Idea Guy   •   January 19, 2019

About Define

The purpose of the Define stage is to synthesize any needs and insights that were discovered during the empathy stage and identify particular themes that can be reframed into an actionable problem statement. This problem statement will then become the focus of our entire design project henceforth. Therefore, it is crucial that we arrive at the correct problem statement, because if we are unable to define the right problem then we are unable to envision the best solution.

Definition: Challenging the problem statement and defining the words we use based on what we learned during Empathy to confirm we’re working on the right problem.

Meaning of Color

Most blues convey a sense of trust, loyalty, cleanliness, and understanding.

  1. “Blue represents both the sky and the sea, and is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, expansiveness, inspiration, and sensitivity. Blue also represents meanings of depth, trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, confidence, stability, faith, heaven, and intelligence.” Learn more here.
  2. “Blue is the helper, the rescuer, the friend in need. It’s success is defined by the quality and quantity of its relationships. It is a giver, not a taker. It likes to build strong trusting relationships and becomes deeply hurt if that trust is betrayed.” Learn more here.

During the previous Empathize stage, it is our job to approach  people and be exultantly friendly. Thus, the stage is best represented by the color yellow, which reflects happiness and energy. However, during the Define stage, we are now entrusted with our end user’s information and tasked with helping them uncover their problems. Therefore, they must have complete faith in us in order to identify the right problem, which will in turn lead to the right solution. This requires a great deal of trust and confidence. Hence, we view this stage to be best represented by the color blue; which resembles loyalty, trust, stability and friendship.

Furthermore, the Define stage practices convergent thinking, meaning that it “is the type of thinking that focuses on coming up with the single, well-established answer to a problem” rather than exploring a range of ideas . Therefore, the Define stage is best represented by a cool color, as it does not require the same energy as divergent stages such as Empathy. This is another reason why the color blue is representative of the Define stage.

Video: Understanding Define

Understanding Define

The Define stage in the design process is all about bringing clarity and focus to the design space. It is your chance, and responsibility, as a design thinker to define the challenge you are taking on, based on what you have learned about your user and about the context. After gaining invaluable empathy for the person you are designing for, this stage is about making sense of the widespread information you have gathered.

The goal of the Define mode is to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement – this is what we call a point-of-view. This should be a guiding statement that focuses on insights and needs of a particular user, or composite character. Insights don’t often just jump in your lap; rather they emerge from a process of synthesizing information to discover connections and patterns. In a word, the Define mode is sensemaking.

Why Define

The Define mode is critical to the design process because it results in your point-of-view (POV): the explicit expression of the problem you are striving to address. More importantly, your POV defines the RIGHT challenge to address, based on your new understanding of people and the problem space. It may seem counterintuitive but crafting a more narrowly focused problem statement tends to yield both greater quantity and higher quality solutions when you are generating ideas.

How to Define

The Define mode is also an endeavor to synthesize your scattered findings into powerful insights. It is this synthesis of your empathy work that gives you the advantage that no one else has: discoveries that you can leverage to tackle the design challenge; that is, INSIGHT.

Consider what stood out to you when talking and observing people. What patterns emerge when you look at the set? If you noticed something interesting ask yourself (and your team) why that might be. In asking why someone had a certain behavior or feeling you are making connections from that person to the larger context. Develop an understanding of the type of person you are designing for – your USER. Synthesize and select a limited set of NEEDS that you think are important to fulfill; you may in fact express a just one single salient need to address. Work to express INSIGHTS you developed through the synthesis of information your have gathered through empathy and research work. Then articulate a point-of-view by combining these three elements – user, need, and insight – as an actionable problem statement that will drive the rest of your design work.

A good point-of-view is one that:

  • Provides focus and frames the problem
  • Inspires your team
  • Informs criteria for evaluating competing ideas
  • Empowers your team to make decisions independently in parallel
  • Captures the hearts and minds of people you meet
  • Saves you from the impossible task of developing concepts that are all things to all people
    (i.e. your problem statement should be discrete, not broad.)

During the Define stage, we use a collection of tools in order to extract the right information to guide us in creating our problem statement. This can be considered a convergent style of thinking, as we are narrowing down our choices in order to arrive at a more singular chain of thought. However, what makes the Define stage so critical is that it defines the RIGHT problem to address. Many times companies will spend a lot of time and money creating elaborate solutions to a problem, only to find that it is the wrong problem. These companies could have avoided this costly mistake if they had concentrated on the right problem to begin with. Therefore, it is crucial that we continue to breakdown the information we have gathered in the empathy stage until we arrive at the most accurate problem. This is also where we may include our end user in the design process, as we can confirm with them whether or not our problem statement embodies their needs.

An Example of Define

“Indeed, when developing new products, processes, or even businesses, most companies aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why those issues are important. Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies. How many times have you seen a project go down one path only to realize in hindsight that it should have gone down another? How many times have you seen an innovation program deliver a seemingly breakthrough result only to find that it can’t be implemented or it addresses the wrong problem? Many organizations need to become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems.”

Read the complete article on the Harvard Business Review: Are You Solving the Right Problem?


Synthesize | This particular tool involves creatively piecing the puzzle together to form whole ideas. This is when we organise, interpret, and make sense of the data we have gathered during the empathy stage and sort them into needs and insights. Under the needs category, we include what our end user needs in order to solve their problem. For example, “…needs an easier commute to school.”Under the insights category, we include all of the surprising information we have learnt. This often starts off as a because statement.  For example “… needs an easier commute to school becausethey become distracted in class when they have had a difficult commute.”

Personas | Personas are fictional characters, which you create based upon your research in order to represent the different people involved in the problem. Creating personas will help you to understand your end users’ needs, experiences, behaviors and goals. Creating personas can help you step out of yourself by recognizing that different people have different needs and expectations, and it can also help you to identify with the user you’re designing for. When creating a persona, it is important to include many characteristics such as age, gender, personality type, income, interests etc. This will help to truly bring this persona to life. The following image is an example of what a persona will look like.

Journey Map | Journey maps are an excellent tool for consolidating the information you have gathered about your end user during the empathy stage. In essence, a journey map represents the process that the end user goes through in order to accomplish a goal. It’s primarily used for understanding and addressing any needs and pin points that the end user experiences during their journey. A journey map is a visual document, so can either be sketched, created on a computer, or represented through a visual diagram. There are many different types of journey maps.

Learn about other steps in the Design Thinking Process

By |2019-01-21T02:30:50+00:00January 3rd, 2017|Design Thinking, Education|