“Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”
-Uri Levine, cofounder of Waze
At its core, user experience design is about solving problems. But before you can solve a problem effectively it must be properly understood and defined. A good problem statement serves as a guide that both feeds the creative process and helps keep the team on track when exploring new ideas and solutions. A problem statement is a concise description of user issues or unmet needs that need to be addressed. For example: “How can we help forgetful pet owners give medication daily in their home to ensure effective treatment, knowing that they may not set up a reminder themselves?”
Problem Statement as Diagnosis
If you had a sore throat and went to the doctor, she would observe your symptoms, run tests and then analyze the results to form a diagnosis in order to prescribe the right treatment. Similarly, a problem statement can be thought of as a diagnosis of design issues identified through observation and testing. Getting to a good problem statement requires both methodical exploration and empathy for those involved.
To identify all the necessary information and start empathizing with the users, use the five Ws (Who, What, When, Where and Why).
- Who is experiencing the problem? Owners of pets who require daily medication.
- What is the problem? People forget to give their pets medication at the same time every day making treatment less effective.
- When does the problem occur? Varies by person, but often either mornings and/or evenings.
- Where is the problem? At home.
- Why does this problem exist? Creating a new habit, like giving a pet medication daily, is hard without a reminder.
To answer these questions you’ll need user research such as observations from user testing, or ethnographic research and you may want to measure certain behaviors using quantitative methods. If you have existing research, organize and filter it to find patterns and themes that answer the above questions. Create relationships and connections between the groupings. Synthesize the information to form ideas and stitch together the bigger picture.
Keep Asking Why
The first answer to a question is often superficial the first time around and needs additional exploration to find the root of what is really happening. To dive deeper, use the five Whys method.
- Why don’t people consistently give their pets medication? They have a busy schedule and forget.
- Why do people forget? It’s not a part of their routine.
- Why isn’t it a part of their routine? It’s a new behavior and even though they try to leave the pill bottle out as a reminder, it’s easy to ignore.
- Why isn’t there a better reminder than the pill bottle? The lack of obvious environmental triggers means pet owners would have to take the initiative to set their own reminders.
- Why don’t people set up their own reminders? Overconfidence in their ability to remember and/or general inertia.
Using this method helps get past the surface to really understand the problem. When the root cause is identified, it’s much easier to build upon it to formulate the problem statement.
Communicating the Problem
Once you know the problem you're trying to solve, the next step is communicating it to team members and stakeholders. It’s important to have a clear problem statement because it will guide the solutions. Here are a few traits a good problem statement should include:
Human-centered: Focus on the user. Frame the problem statement around the user and their needs. Avoid being organization-focused and leave out mentions of technology, budget and product specifications.
Don’t: “Company X wants to ensure customers comply with veterinarian instructions and give pets their daily medication.”
Do: “What are ways we can help forgetful pet owners ensure effective treatment by giving medication on schedule?”
Broad enough for exploration but narrow enough to be manageable: Leave room for exploration and different creative solutions. However, avoid being too broad which results in little direction.
Don’t: “Improve compliance with veterinary medication instructions.”
Do: “Help forgetful pet owners give medication daily to ensure effective treatment.”
Phrase as a question: Rephrasing the statement into questions such as “How might we...?” or “What can we do to…?” encourages creativity, ideation and helps generate a wide range of solutions. For example: “How can we help forgetful pet owners...?”