How to define the problem in product design

How to define the problem in product design
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya

Product design is essentially about finding a solution to a problem (or problems) that users face. However, not every problem needs a solution. But how to understand whether your problem is the one that is worth solving. To do that, you need not only to identify the problem but also frame it so you and everyone in your team can understand it.  

The better a problem is articulated, the easier it will be to solve it.

Here is a simple five W's framework that can help you with that:

1. What is the problem?

Answer will help to: Define the problem

You need to articulate your design problem focussing on user pain points.

  • Avoid any references to specific solutions you have. You need to focus on the problem, not the solution.
  • Try not to mix a few problems together, even when they're related. You need to apply this framework individually to each problem.
  • Prioritize problems based on the level of their importance for users/for business.

2. Who is experiencing the problem?

Answer will help to: Identify your target audience

The target audience and their needs should be front and center of your product design process. You should have a solid understanding of who your users are and what pain points they have.

Sometimes you can find multiple groups of users affected by a problem, and different groups are affected differently. In this case, you will need to measure the impact on each group individually.

3. Why does the problem occur?

Answer will help to: Identify driving factors

What tasks do users want to accomplish when they face a problem? It will help you connect problems to user goals and better understand the user journey (and the role of your product in user’s lives).

4. Where and when does the problem occur?

Answer will help to: Better understand context

Learn specific conditions in which the problem occurs. This question will help you explore the background of a problem:

  • Environment in which it happens (i.e., home, office, outside)
  • Time of the day (i.e., morning hours, evening hours)
  • Device that people use (i.e., mobile, desktop, digital kiosk, etc.)
  • People (Are there any other people involved?)

5. Why does this problem matter?

Answer will help to: Impact that problem has on business bottom line

What value will it bring to users/business? What will happen if you don't fix the problem? It's essential to quantify the impact of the problem because it will be easier to convince stakeholders to fix the problem.

But before that, you need to ensure that your target audience will be willing to pay for your solution; otherwise, you won't impact the business bottom line (zero revenue).

But what if I don't have answers to all the questions?

That's quite a common situation. You need to spend more time on design research. Learn more about your target audience (try to identify the meaningful needs of your users) and business needs (learn more about product features that have a significant impact on the business bottom line).