Design Thinking, Step 2: Define the Problem

Desks need legs, right? Nope.

Instead of supporting his new desk with the usual clunky desk legs or cabinets, designer Dario Antinioni erased that visual clutter. Not by creating more elegant or slender legs, but by—well, not leaving it with a leg to stand on. 

He saw that the real problem wasn’t how to make desk legs more aesthetically appealing to more customers. 

The real problem was creating a space whose minimalism would help people be more focused, calm and productive at work.

And his sleek, Apple-worthy design solves that problem just fine.

What’s Your Users’ Point of View?

Dario Antinioni knew the importance of Design Thinking Stage 2: defining the real problem

Too often, designers assume they know it already. For a simple example, some might look at a shady grove and think “We need more comfortable chairs for people to use under trees” instead of seeing the deeper need from their users’ point of view. If they’d done so, they would have found a desire that goes beyond chairs; for example, a need to feel completely relaxed and maybe even take a nap outdoors.

The first approach leads to perfectly adequate Adirondack or folding chairs…after all, studiously gleaned piles of data from Step 1 (Empathy) showed that users didn’t like chilling on hard picnic benches or ant-infested blankets. So, of course, these outdoor enthusiasts want chairs instead, right?

Maybe…but first, wise designers would cluster together to sift through their empathy maps and dig into their users’ heads (in a good way.) even more than during the interview-heavy Empathy Stage. 

This data analysis (don’t worry, it’s fun) will help your team create a Point of View Statement, also known as a Problem Statement

This essential statement will define the deeper issue that users need solved. Once your team has created it, this statement will guide your team as they brainstorm solutions in Stage 3: Ideate.

For example, the aforementioned outdoor decorators assumed that their users wanted to sit under the trees. If they’d pulled together their empathy maps and looked at why people wanted to hang out there, they’d have seen that the problem wasn’t lack of chairs…it was finding a place to completely relax in their backyards, to the point of taking a refreshing outdoor siesta.

And once they began carrying hammocks, their sales would have soared.

Essentials of a Non-Problematic Problem Statement

Before jumping into how to make a problem statement (that’s coming next article) let’s go over the 3 elements of a problem/point of view statement:


Sadly, no product or service can be all things to all people. 

Successful ventures focus on one particular need they can fulfill. For example, Domino’s Pizza is popular because it’s cheap & fast. Lou Malnati’s is popular because it’s the best deep-dish pizza out there.

Both succeeded because they didn’t even try to make cheap, fast AND artisan-quality pizza. They each focused on being the best solution for a particular need.

So make sure to narrow down your prospective users. This will help your team develop a solution that delights many prospects in a particular group (i.e., parents of multiple children, small IT business owners, or managers of golf courses) to which you can effectively market. 

What to avoid: making your problem statement about your company and its objectives. Of course, you’re concerned about your company’s welfare, but right now helping your company means focusing on your users’ needs first. 


What have your users had a problem with, and what new product or service will fix it? 

Since your team has already completed Step 1: Empathy, they’ll have more than enough data to figure this out. 

But a pile of data is just that…your team will need to carefully sift through, compare, review, analyze, and synthesize it in order to suss out your users’ patterns and needs. 


Or, more accurately,

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Despite its resemblance to a curious toddler, the “5-Why” Method is actually a time-proven way to dig deep into your users’ needs so you know what they’re really looking for. It’s founded on the theory that once you’ve asked “Why?” 5 times about a specific activity, you’ll have gone from a superficial understanding of your user to a more fundamental one. 

The “5-Why” method forms part of the data-analyzing techniques we’ll discuss in the next section, so we’ll discuss it in more detail then. 

To sum up, remember these 3 elements (Who, What, Why) and that they’re all ordered to the 7 Purposes of a Problem Statement:

  1. Focus: frame the specific problem
  2. Inspire: your team and those you’ll meet in the process of product design (especially stakeholders)
  3. Guide: for evaluating the plethora of ideas to come in Stage 3
  4. Empower: your team members to make decisions based on this goal
  5. Suggest: “how can we…” statements as your team brainstorms solutions
  6. Narrow: your target users, so you can serve them most effectively
  7. Revisit. The Problem Statement is important, but shouldn’t be set in stone. As your team brainstorms, they’ll come to an even deeper understanding of the issue. So you will probably modify parts of your problem statement to reflect your developed goals. 

It’s a lot for one statement to do, but don’t worry—next we’ll show you how to create and refine an effective Problem Statement with your team (and have fun doing it.) 

Tune in next time as we break down another Principle of Design Thinking