In the intricate dance of design thinking, the step of problem framing sets the rhythm for the entire performance. It’s the initial brushstroke on a canvas, the opening note in a symphony of creativity. 

Understanding and defining a problem with clarity and insight is not merely a preliminary task; it is the beacon that guides designers through the fog of complexity towards solutions that resonate deeply with users. 

Let’s explore the transformative power of effective problem framing and uncover the practices that elevate it from a routine step to a strategic advantage in the design process.

Understanding Problem Framing

According to a study published in the “Design Studies” journal, problem framing is not merely about identifying a problem but about understanding its context, implications, and potential for innovative solutions. The study emphasizes the role of problem framing in guiding the design process and influencing the effectiveness of the solutions developed.

This step serves as the preliminary foundation for the design journey, positioning the problem statement as a beacon for all ensuing design-related activities. It entails perceiving the problem through a perspective that not only encapsulates its core but also paves the path for inventive exploration. 

The Importance of Problem Framing in Design Thinking

A well-articulated problem frame is like a compass in the wilderness of innovation, ensuring that every step taken moves to a solution that is both effective and meaningful to the end user. It transforms vague, often misunderstood issues into clearly defined challenges that invite creative thinking and problem-solving. 

Moreover, the process of framing a problem in design thinking is about opening up to a broader perspective where problems are seen as opportunities for growth and innovation. It encourages teams to look beyond the obvious, to question assumptions, and to explore the problem space with a sense of curiosity and openness. 

Best Practices for Problem Framing

Now it’s time to delve deeper into the methodologies that enhance this process.

Let’s see how we can refine and elevate the art of problem framing in design thinking to unlock its full potential:

Start with Broad Research

Initiating an exhaustive exploration into the problem space is indispensable. This entails a meticulous collection of insights from a plethora of sources such as market studies, in-depth user interviews, ethnographic research, and beyond. The objective is to fully immerse oneself in the ecosystem of the problem, gaining a multi-dimensional understanding of its intricacies and subtleties from diverse vantage points.

Involve Stakeholders

Problem framing should be a collaborative effort, involving not just the design team but all relevant stakeholders. As claimed by the Project Management Institute, involving a diverse group of stakeholders, including users and experts, in the problem framing process enriches the understanding of the problem, leading to more holistic and innovative solutions. Their diverse perspectives enrich the process, ensuring a more comprehensive understanding of the challenge at hand.

Focus on Human-Centric Problems

Central to the philosophy of design thinking is the focus on human experiences and needs. It’s crucial that problems are framed through a lens that closely aligns with the human context, taking into account the real-world impact on individuals and communities. This approach ensures that solutions are not only technologically feasible and business-savvy but also deeply resonant and empathetic to the end-user’s experience.

Reframe Problems as Opportunities

A powerful shift occurs when problems are viewed not as obstacles but as opportunities for innovation and improvement. The Stanford advocates for this perspective shift, highlighting its potential to inspire a positive and proactive approach to problem-solving. This perspective encourages a positive, proactive approach to problem-solving, where every challenge is seen as a chance to make a significant impact.

Use Clear and Actionable Language

The clarity and conciseness with which a problem is articulated can significantly shape the direction of the design team’s efforts. Crafting problem statements that are both clear and actionable provides a direct and unambiguous roadmap for the design process, enabling focused ideation and solution development.

Avoid Assumptions

Assumptions are often the Achilles’ heel of problem framing. It is vital to continuously question and validate these assumptions, ensuring that the framing is anchored in verifiable insights and evidence. This vigilant approach guards against biases and unfounded beliefs, fostering a more authentic and grounded understanding of the problem.

Be Open to Iteration

Problem framing is an evolving process. The Agile Methodology, widely adopted in design and development projects, highlights the importance of iteration in continuously refining the problem statement based on new insights and learnings. As new insights are uncovered through research and ideation, the problem statement should be revisited and refined to reflect a deeper understanding of the challenge.

Prioritize and Scope

It is often the case that not all facets of a problem are equally pressing. Delineating the critical issues and establishing the scope of the project is essential. This strategic prioritization enables a focused allocation of resources and efforts on areas where design interventions can yield the most substantial impact.

Visualize the Problem

Using visual tools enhances understanding. The Nielsen Norman Group advocates for the use of diagrams and mind maps to facilitate shared comprehension among team members and stakeholders, making complex problems more accessible. These visual narratives facilitate a shared understanding among a team, making complex information more accessible and engaging.

Test the Problem Framing

The final step in problem framing is to validate the problem statement with users and stakeholders. This ensures that the framing resonates with those it aims to serve and is relevant to their needs and contexts.

Tools and Techniques for Problem Framing

to further refine the problem framing process and make it more effective, there are several tools and techniques that can be utilized to deepen understanding and enhance collaboration.

  • The Five Whys: This technique, developed within the Toyota Production System,  involves asking “Why?” repeatedly to peel away the layers of a problem and reach its root cause. Research in the field of organizational behavior has shown that the Five Whys technique not only uncovers deeper insights into problems but also promotes a deeper understanding of the underlying issues affecting processes and outcomes.
  • Point of View (POV) Statements: Crafting POV statements involves defining the problem from the user’s perspective, focusing on their needs, experiences, and the context in which they encounter the problem. This human-centric approach ensures that the problem framing remains grounded in real user insights.
  • How Might We (HMW) Questions: Transforming problems into HMW questions is a technique that opens up the problem space for creative exploration. It invites a broad range of potential solutions by framing challenges as open-ended questions.

Overcoming Common Challenges in Problem Framing

After all, navigating the intricacies of problem framing in design thinking isn’t without its hurdles. Addressing and overcoming these challenges is crucial to harnessing the full potential of this phase. Here are some common challenges and strategies to overcome them:

  • Overcoming Bias:

Bias can significantly influence how a problem is framed, potentially leading to solutions that are not in the best interest of all users. To mitigate bias, it’s essential to incorporate diverse perspectives. A study by McKinsey & Company on diversity and inclusion found that teams with a wide range of perspectives are more likely to innovate and identify user-centric solutions. Techniques like role-playing or adopting different personas can provide valuable insights into the problem from various user perspectives.

  • Dealing with Information Overload:

In the quest to thoroughly understand the problem space, teams might find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information collected. To manage this, focus on synthesizing and distilling information into key insights that directly inform the problem framing. Utilize tools like affinity diagrams to organize and prioritize information, and create concise, actionable problem statements that encapsulate the essence of the challenge.

  • Avoiding Solution Bias:

It’s natural to start thinking of solutions early in the problem framing process, but this can limit creative exploration and lead to a narrow focus. To prevent this, consciously separate the problem framing and solution ideation phases. Emphasize the importance of staying open-minded and exploratory during problem framing, reserving judgment and solution-focused thinking for later stages.

  • Navigating Vague or Complex Problems:

Some problems might initially appear too vague or complex to frame effectively. In such cases, break down the problem into smaller, more manageable components. Use tools like mind mapping to visualize the different aspects of the problem and their interrelations. This can help in identifying specific areas to focus on and in making the overall challenge more approachable.

  • Ensuring Stakeholder Alignment:

Getting all stakeholders to agree on the problem framing can be challenging, especially in projects with diverse interests and perspectives. Facilitate workshops or collaborative sessions where stakeholders can voice their views and contribute to the framing process. Use visual tools and storytelling to communicate the framed problem effectively, ensuring a shared understanding and buy-in.

  • Maintaining Flexibility:

The initial problem framing might not always hold up as new information and insights come to light. Be prepared to revisit and revise the problem statement as the project progresses. Foster a culture of adaptability within the team, emphasizing that refining the problem framing is a positive step towards deeper understanding and better solutions.

  • Balancing Broad and Narrow Framing:

Finding the right balance between a framing that is too broad, which might lack actionable focus, and one that is too narrow, which might overlook potential opportunities, is key. Start with a broad perspective to ensure comprehensive understanding, then gradually narrow down based on insights gathered during research and stakeholder engagement. Regularly review the framing to ensure it remains aligned with the project’s goals and scope.

While acknowledging and addressing these challenges, remember that the goal of problem framing isn’t just to define a challenge, but to set the stage for creative and impactful solutions that truly meet user needs and contribute to positive change.


After exploring the depths of problem framing in design thinking, we emerge with a renewed appreciation for its critical role in guiding the design journey. This nuanced phase is a reminder that understanding the problem with depth and clarity is as significant as the solutions we dream of creating.

As we tackle design challenges, let’s remember to do our homework, work closely with everyone involved, and always keep the people we’re designing for in mind. These principles will light our way and open up a world of new possibilities through effective problem framing.


  • How do you balance specificity and openness in a problem statement?

Achieving balance in a problem statement involves being specific enough to provide clear direction while remaining open enough to not constrain creative solutions. It’s about crafting a statement that guides the design process without limiting the scope of potential innovations.

  • What do you do if stakeholders disagree on the problem framing?

Disagreements among stakeholders can be addressed by facilitating open discussions that delve into the underlying reasons for their differing views. The goal is to reach a consensus that aligns with the core objectives of the project and the needs of the users, possibly through compromise or finding common ground.

  • How can you ensure that the problem framing is user-centered?

Ensuring a user-centered approach to problem framing involves engaging directly with users through various research methods such as interviews, observations, and usability studies