Are you solving the right problem? Do this before you start product design

Simon Tratnik
  • 4
    min read
  • Simon Tratnik
    Mar 8, 2023

To say that business problems are getting more complex is an understatement – unpredictable markets, hybrid and remote teams, exponentially rapid tech advancements. The game is constantly changing, and it has never been more difficult to clearly identify and define the most important problem to solve. 

We’ve solved complex problems in 50+ different companies. There’s a surprisingly common mistake that we’ve found in almost every one. 

Problem solving most often goes wrong when teams don’t give enough attention to both sides of the coin:

The solving… and the problem. 

They jump straight into solution mode, without questioning whether they’re attacking the right problem in the first place.

In today’s article we’re looking at arguably the most crucial stage of problem solving: understanding the problem itself. 

As the Albert Einstein quote goes:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.
<quote-author>Albert Einstein<quote-author>

Read on for all the essentials of ‘problem framing’, when to use it, why to use it and how to get started. 

Exploring the ‘right’ problem - what is ‘problem framing’?

In the current business climate, problems are becoming more ambiguous and more difficult to pin down. Organizations needed a more organized way of tackling issues head on and exploring a wider range of ideas. 

Problem framing simply gives structure to the process of exploring and describing a problem.

Imagine you’re holding a camera, taking a picture of a problem. 

When we problem frame, we don’t change the subject of the picture. But we might tweak the perspective or the lense, the focus or the zoom. 

Trying to solve the problem with a blurry picture is a waste of time. Once we have a clear photo, we can use it as a guide to seek out solutions. 


When should we use problem framing?

Here are a few situations where you’ll need to use problem framing:

  • You don’t have a ‘nutshell’ description of the business problem you’re trying to solve
  • You’ve tried some traditional problem-solving methods that either haven’t worked or have made matters worse
  • You're at a cross roads with multiple ideas but no clear winner
  • You want to expand and explore new business opportunities
  • You’re stuck due to disagreement between stakeholders and need a way forward

If any of those sound familiar, product framing will definitely get team your team on the right track. 

Solving the right problem – the benefits of problem framing

Looking for the right answer to the wrong question is a waste of precious time and resources. The advantages of spending time on defining the problem before starting work on the solution are clear:

Improve focus

From a project perspective, the advantages are clear: more focused product development resulting in better alignment with customer needs. 

Define scope

We all know that scope creep and shifting goals are the enemy of project efficiency. By clearly defining the problem from the start, you avoid headaches later. 

Get everyone on board

Communication is key. Spending time on the right language to frame your challenge sets the tone for the project, and gets all stakeholders united behind the same objective.  

Boost innovation

The process of problem framing allows us to look past the most obvious ideas and uncover details we might not have consider (remember our camera?) This is where true ‘outside the box’ creativity comes into play.


How to get started – find and solve your perfect fit problem 

As a problem solving studio, clients are sometimes surprised when we don’t go simply take their brief and start generating solution ideas. 

Instead, we spend a big chunk of the preparation for every Sprint digging deeper on that problem. In fact, in Sprint processes we rarely end up working on the exact problem the client thought they had.

There are dozens of techniques that we adapt to fit the situation. Here are three of our essential steps:

Dig deeper

Rather than tackling the visible part of the iceberg, take a look under the surface. 

A simple example is the slow elevator problem, explained by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg. Tenants of an apartment building are complaining the elevator is too slow. They’re waiting ages each time they use it. 

The builder owner goes into solution mode, requesting painfully expensive quotes to replace the whole elevator system. But the building manager, who’s sees the problem in action, mentions that people aren’t complaining because the lift is slow, they’re complaining because they get bored waiting around in the lobby. 

This reframe leads to exploring other solutions such as installing a mirror in the waiting area to occupy tenants’ time while they wait. 

There are many simple exercises, such as the 5 whys method, that you can use to dig deeper on motives and objectives. This is always an integral part of Sprint preparation.


Challenge assumptions

When defining problems, some degree of bias is inevitable. Stakeholders will bring assumptions about the causes of the problem based on their knowledge level, lived experience and their personal objectives. 

In Sprint processes, we get around this through interviews and exercises to identify and challenge assumptions around the problem, and by involving as many different skills sets and perspectives as possible to uncover hidden details. (Remember the building manager’s different point of view?)

Watch your language

Remember, we’re preparing a path to the solution, so it’s important to frame our problem in a constructive way. Questions that are open and positive tend to give better results and unite the problem solving team. 

Taking our previous example, consider the difference between:

It's a difference between: 'The elevator is slow.' vs 'How might we improve people's experience of waiting for the elevator?'

In both cases the solution could be to shorten the wait somehow, but the second open doors to more potential ideas that could replace, combine with, or enhance the obvious solutions. 

So we’ve taken you through the what, why and how of problem framing. Are you ready to start solving the right problem?


Call in our Expert Team

At the early stages of exploring your problem? We’ll lead your team through analysing, ideating and creating an actionable roadmap in a Strategy Sprint

Want to define the right problem and get a tested and validated solution in 5 days? Let’s do a Design Sprint

Want to change the way you approach problem diagnosis long term? Problem framing is the first tool in the extensive kit that we teach your employees in a Training Sprint.


Human1st Weekly Newsletter on topics like product, growth, leadership and collaboration.