Use this method to write better problem definition statements

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Einstein believed the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify the problem you hope to solve! - Albert Einstein

I get really excited when there is a brand new project in the pipeline and the thought of delivering something of value that’s going to make improvements. More often than not though I tend to go straight to solution mode. It’s fun, creative, collaborative and satisfying. I love it. 

BUT there is an issue with this approach and I’ve been caught out countless times. You see jumping straight to solutions is risky in that the project could end up delivering something that doesn’t solve the actual problem. 

It goes without saying then that all projects should start with a problem definition. In creating a well defined problem definition it will undoubtedly directly impact the quality of the end solution.  Sounds easy? It isn’t. It takes time and effort. Nowadays we appear to have less time than ever before. But needs must if we want our solution to be awesome. You do want your solution to be awesome, right? 

I like to think of a problem statement like a log line of a movie or TV series. When you decide you want to watch something most people will want to read the short snappy description you find in the listing. You don’t go off and decide to read the entire plot (well some people might if you are that way inclined) you want to know what it’s about as succinctly and quickly as possible.

Friends.jpg

A problem statement is the same, it's not a huge tome that spans pages and pages. It also doesn’t describe the ending/solution. It needs to explain what it’s about and what problem are we actually trying to solve here?  No solutions. Leave it till later.

It's a keystone statement that needs to be referred to again and again to ensure the project isn’t going wildly off track. Focus focus focus. 

I would recommend spending time thinking and creating the definition collaboratively with everyone involved in the project. Ensure that everyone is in agreement. Workshop it, hold focus sessions do whatever it takes to include your stakeholders and understand the problem properly. 

The Problem Canvas 

So what is an alternative way to create a problem definition? One method I have come across, and rather like, is the problem definition canvas.

CanvasOne.jpg

Why do I like this approach? I can see it all on one page and helps focus. This canvas emphasises the end user and the how the customer feels. We as humans all have needs and if they aren’t met the emotional side of things has the greatest impact. 

Ok so lets looks at a problem I had a few years ago and create a bad problem definition for it.

Adam has a huge problem exercising at the moment. We need to build him an awesome fitness app for this

Why is this definition bad? There are no specifics here, only that I am having a problem exercising (don’t we all?) and the solution is right there in the definition. An app!! Really, is that the only option…? I might not even use a smartphone!

Fixing it with the Problem Canvas

Let’s use the problem canvas to fix my original weak definition.

Context

To kick things off lets begin with context - We need to investigate exactly when the problem occurs. Is it in the afternoon at 12pm? Is it Every Monday from 10-12pm? It might be that it occurs 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Who knows! 

For me it was -

Every weekday during the evenings at 5pm for an hour

Customers

Next move onto customers and ask who has the problem most often?

If your problem is bigger in scale than mine it's advisable to look at the specific smaller scale customer base and creating an awesome solution for them than a wide customer base and thus an average solution. Think of it a bit like when an author writes a book he/she normally is writing for a small target audience not everyone in the whole world.

So in this case I’ve gone for  -

Adam who is male, 37, works full time, lives with his wife and kids in suburban Bristol

Problem 

Now look at what the cause of the problem is.

At this stage we need to investigate the root cause and for this we can use the 5 whys approach, for example - 

Adam has a huge problem exercising 

Why 1? - has young children

Why 2? - they need tending to

Why 3? - works 9-5

Why 4? - Has to commute

Why 5? - Time issues (root cause)

So my root cause line is - 

Is unable to find the time to exercise due to work and family time constraints


Emotional Impact

After identifying the root cause investigate the emotion impact this problem poses to our customer, do they feel sad or angry for instance? Try to get in their shoes and see if from their perspective. Understanding the emotions usually helps identify behaviours and then can be considered in the solution. 

Well in my case -

And ends up feeling frustrated and groggy

Quantifiable Impact

I find this the most difficult to establish. We need to understand the loss this problem is causing for our customer, for example time or money. In my case it’s hard to quantify in currency but..

I’ve gone for -

Has regular dips in energy


Alternatives

I like this bit. What alternative solutions are the customers currently doing to get over the problem? It might be there are some great solutions here already. Maybe. Perhaps...

My alternative solution -

Joins the gym and occasionally goes at lunchtime

Alternative Shortcomings

The alternatives the customers use are likely to have shortcomings as they still have the problem right? We also want to identify these shortcomings before they end up in our solution!

My alternative shortcomings were -

there are too many barriers for entry; the gym costs money, requires packing of extra bag for work, if something comes up at work is de-railed from going, gym is too busy and requires travel there and back sucking up time.

New and improved

So from my original weak definition -

Adam has a huge problem exercising at the moment. We need to build him an awesome fitness app for this

We now have a specific problem definition to help focus any solution going forwards. 

Every weekday during the mornings and evenings,

Adam who is 37 and lives with his wife and kids in suburban Bristol.

Is unable to find the time to exercise due to work and family time constraints

Who ends up feeling frustrated and groggy and has regular dips in energy

So joins the gym and goes at lunchtime

But there are too many barriers for entry; the gym costs money, requires packing of extra bag for work, if something comes up at work is de-railed from going, gym is too busy and requires travel there and back sucking up time

Let’s put it onto the canvas and take a look.

CanvasTwo.jpg

I think it’s much improved. Do you? 

Do you think a fitness app will solve my problem? 

Do you have a problem that needs defining and can use this canvas? 

Perhaps using this problem defininton method you’ll improve the quality of your solutions! Have fun. 

@adamboyes



Adam Boyes, Design Lead

Design Lead in the Innovation and Design Teams. Loves building strong relationships and collaborating. Always looking to add value and improve lives through design. Regularly produces Sketchnotes simplifying information overload in a fun way.

Passionate about leadership, design, drawing, music, kettlebells, personal development, well-being and writing.