Defining problems is a crucial part of the design process—it’s creativity’s launchpad—the culmination of all the hard work done empathizing with users. Establishing empathy for and observing users are the foundation on which problems are framed. Often users do not articulate their problems, their unconscious desires that aren’t being met. “It’s the user’s purpose that needs attention, not simply an unwelcome situation. This deeper need is at the root of what a user desires, whether or not they can articulate it” (DeVos, 2018).

What to Ask

UXPin offers three universal questions to ask clients (Tapia, 2016):

  1. What is the business objective?
  2. What is the context of the product’s use?
  3. What are the user’s goals?

Answering these broad questions will jumpstart the design process. Question one establishes what the client or your organization desires. Questions two and three are best addressed through empathy and ethnography.

Taking a Step Back to Empathy

Empathy and observation are the pillars of human-centered design. IDEO believes observing user behavior and taking the user’s perspective are the foundation for a design. Stanford’s’s Design Thinking Bootleg is a treasure trove of useful tips and exercises and includes interview advice. When interviewing users, keep the following in mind:

  • Focus on Stories. Anecdotes are relatable, memorable – how we best retain information. Ask users about specific instances, about their latest experience. You want that nugget, that quick story outlining a frustration.
  • Ask ‘Why’ with Frequency. Asking ‘why’ ad nauseam can unearth unarticulated desires and motivations.
  • Be On the lookout for inconsistencies. What users do and say can be two different things.
  • Be Conscious of Body Language.

Stating Problems

The goal is to have an actionable problem statement. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, a good problem statement needs to be geared toward a specific user (based on empathetic insights), be broad enough to accommodate creativity, and narrow enough to be feasible.

Get into a good mindset

“Design students often start their creative process by translating insights into problem statements. But you can’t identify a problem without asking a bigger question first. So how do we get there? When we find the right opportunity space for a team to tackle, creativity flows” (Huff, 2017).

Mind the Four Ws

Jordan DeVos suggests starting with the four Ws (Who, What, Where and Why):

  • Who is having the problem?
  • What is the problem? What are the frustrations and what needs to be accomplished?
  • Where does it happen? Think about context.
  • Why does it matter? What value does solving the problem bring to the user and the business?

Give Your Problems a Point of View

Design thinking uses the term point of view (POV) as a term for a problem statement that allows designers to keep focused on user needs and the insights they have on users. There are three parts to a point of view statement: user, need, and insight.

  • Define your users (e.g., working college students)
  • Need (e.g., term paper writing help at nontraditional hours)
  • Insight (e.g., the user is studious, but family obligations limit him to only working late at night. He is tech-savvy and willing to work with peers.)

This is the basic POV statement structure:

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

The structure is combining the three parts into an actionable problem statement to jumpstart to ideation or brainstorming. Here’s a sample point of view statement from our example above.

A working college student needs help writing term papers at nontraditional hours because his only time for classwork is late at night due to his job and family obligations.

The best statements are simple, accessible (anyone can understand), and steer clear of proposing solutions.

Framing problems is innovation’s Cape Canaveral. If you fuel solutions with quality problem statements, your designs are sure to skyrocket.


Dam, R., & Siang, T. (2017). Define and frame your design challenge by creating your point of view and ask “how might we”. Retrieved from

Dam, R., & Siang, T. (2019). Stage 2 in the design thinking process: Define the problem and interpret the results. Retrieved from

Devos, J. (2018). Design problem statements – what they are and how to frame them. Retrieved from

Huff, L. (2017, August 16). 5 ways to think like a designer from an IDEO partner. Retrieved from

IDEO’s human centered design process: How to make thing people love. (2018, December 5). Retrieved from