Design Thinking Define Stage: Identify Your Users’ Core Challenge

Ellen Gregory

If you’ve read our recent posts, Design Thinking: How to Execute Exceptional Designs & Think Outside the Box and Design Thinking: How Designers Solve Problems then you already know design thinking is a solution-based approach that focuses on the human that you’re designing for. Now that we’ve asked, “who is the human behind it and what's the human need?”, and observed our users in stage 1 of design thinking empathy, it’s time for stage 2, the design thinking define stage. 


By observing users empathetically, we can embrace simple mindset shifts and tackle problems from a new direction that helps designers create innovative solutions, overcome challenges, and produce incredibly successful results. This is where the design thinking define stage comes into the picture. Here, we begin piecing the information we’ve gathered during the empathize stage by analyzing the observations, and synthesizing them. The purpose of this stage of the design thinking process is to define the core problems and create a problem statement in a human-centered manner.


Design Thinking Steps
The 5 steps in the Design Thinking Process


In this post, we will focus on how the define phase, which is all about analyzing the data found in stage 1, identifying the core problems and designing human-centered solutions.  

The design thinking process

Design thinking is an undeniably powerful tool when properly applied. As we know from our first article in the design thinking series, Design Thinking: How to Execute Exceptional Designs & Think Outside the Box and Design Thinking: How Designers Solve Problems design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that focuses on solutions, not problems. A primary element of the design thinking process is thinking and ideating on meeting the needs of the end-user. With it, you are pulling together the most desirable solution from a human point of view. By combining creative and critical thinking, information and ideas are organized in a way that ensures decisions are made, situations are improved, and problems are solved from a human-centric approach.


Design thinking define stage problem-solving solutions
Challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions


This way of thinking dives into understanding the end-user by challenging assumptions, redefining problems and creating innovative solutions. 


In the design thinking empathy stage, we created a series of questions that get to the heart of the problem, the assumptions, and the implications so that you can understand their needs, thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the end-user. From here, we take the data collected and define the design problems and challenges. 

Stage 2: The design thinking define stage

This stage of collating the data collected from the design thinking empathy stage is referred to as the design thinking define stage.


The define phase is all about implementing methods of synthesizing raw data and creating a meaningful and usable body of knowledge. From here, we create an actionable design problem statement. The purpose of the problem statement is to establish the core problems and generate tangible and actionable ideas to solve the problems you and your team have identified up to this point. As with every stage of the design thinking process, the aim is to define the problem in a human-centered manner.


design thinking define stage data
Collate the data collected from the empathy stage


The design thinking define stage is intended to help the designers gather ideas about features, functions, and other elements that provided a solution to the problems or, allow users to resolve issues themselves with ease. 

From analyze to synthesize

With your results and findings from the empathize phase, group, cluster and present everything into one place, to create a collage of experiences, thoughts, insights, and stories. 


By collecting all of the information in one place, it is easier to establish the problems and generate potential solutions that go beyond the obvious. What you’re really doing here is moving from analyze to synthesize.


Analyze is about breaking down complex concepts and problems into bite-size components. This is typically done during the first stage of the empathize stage where we record details about users while observing them. synthesize is the next step as it involves creatively piecing the data we found in order to form complete ideas, and is typically completed during the define phase as we organize, interpret, and make sense of the data. 


Design thinking define stage problems and solutions
Establish the problems and generate potential solutions


Consider the design thinking empathy map discussed in Design Thinking Empathy: Human-Centric Solutions. The map provides four major areas to focus our attention on, which gives us an overview of a person’s experience. The four major areas reflect four key traits and refer to what the user: Said, Did, Thought, and Felt. From this, unpack user stories and ask yourself, what does this tell you about the challenges and problems they’re experiencing? 


human-centric design thinking define stage
Design thinking asks, “What's the human need?”


As mentioned in the article, Design Thinking Empathy: Human-Centric Solutions, the empathy map consists of four categories in which the user data is organized and analyzed:

  • Said: Word choice and what the user says
  • Did: behaviors and actions observed
  • Thought: consider what they’re thinking based on beliefs, motivations, goals, needs, and desires
  • Felt: Emotional responses based on subtle body cues and word choice 


From here, we can unpack or synthesize what this information means:

  • Share what you observed and found with other designers.
  • Capture the important parts visually
  • Record all the information into one place, such as a board or wall, so you can analyze it as a whole.
  • Begin noting connections, patterns, and themes.

The define phase begins with understanding the data

Typically speaking, body language is one of the most reliable ways of detecting any hesitation, doubt, resistance and other behaviors that become the basis for developing new and deeper insights into the challenges your user faces. Note any contrasts, contradictions, tensions and any patterns, connections, or themes that emerge.


It’s important to keep in mind that design thinking is an iterative process, which means they don’t just take place in one specific step, but often happen continuously throughout each stage of the design thinking process. In other words, designers typically analyze a particular situation before synthesizing new insights. 


Once that’s completed, they will likely analyze their synthesized findings again to create a more comprehensive synthesize. In the design thinking define stage, the purpose is to create a problem statement through the process of analyzing to synthesize. A problem statement is an essential part of design thinking project because it guides your team and focuses on a specific need or set of needs.


Design thinking define stage: problem statement
The problem statement guides and focuses on specific needs.

How to define a problem statement or POV

Understanding the data will help you establish an actionable problem statement. Your problem statement, or Point of View, goes beyond just defining the problem. This is the unique perspective or vision based on your discoveries during the empathy phase. The key to a successful design thinking process is truly understanding the human challenges and leveraging those insights to create a concrete, innovative solution specific to your end-user.


So then, what does a successful problem statement entail? Here are a few guides for creating a good problem statement:

Focus on the end-user

As we know from stage one of the process, empathy is the crux of understanding your user, everything they will see, and everything they will experience when they see a design. Anything designed with them in mind tends to attract the most positive reactions. So with that in mind, your problem statement should be about the people the team is trying to help. With that being said, frame your problem statement according to specific users from data gathered during the empathize phase. Define your user by developing one or more personas. This will help narrow down your findings from your observations, interviews, fieldwork, etc. With this information, synthesize the needs using verbs to make it actionable. The intention here is to create a theory and actionable idea that you can leverage in your designing solution.


Design thinking define stage example solutions
Define your user by developing one or more personas


Manageable scope

There is a fine line between being too broad, and being too narrow. A good problem statement can be defined as having just enough guidance and constraints to make the project manageable. You don’t want it to become too narrowly focused on a specific method or restricted to specific requirements, such as technical elements, but not so broad that it feels like there are infinite possibilities. There should be enough space to explore areas that can lead to unexpected value and insight to the project. We recommend beginning the problem statement with a verb, such as “define”, “adapt”, “design”, etc. This will help steer the problem statement into an actionable plan.  

Design thinking define stage example

To drive the point home, consider this design thinking define example. Imagine you are creating an app the provides healthy pre-made meal service to seniors. Rather than stating that you want to increase food sales to seniors by 5%, the problem can be defined as seniors require meal delivery in order to have access to nutritional meal options. 


Ultimately, your aim is to create an actionable problem statement based on a deep understanding of the user’s specific needs, not a company’s bottom line or needs. Those insights are uncovered in your research and observations during the emphasis stage. So make sure you have a good foundation. Your problem statement isn’t intended to create a specific solution, or a way to fulfill your users’ needs in the service, experience, or product you’re designing. Rather, it’s purpose is to provide a broad enough scope so that you can begin thinking about solutions beyond the obvious solutions. 


When you’ve successfully framed the problem as a problem statement, created a POV that is inspiring, informative, captivating, and guides your innovation efforts in an actionable, unique and meaningful way, you can move onto the next step. 


Actionable problem statement design thinking define stage
Create an actionable problem statement based on your users’ needs


What to expect after the design thinking define stage

The Define phase is often one of the most challenging and important steps in the process, as it sets the tone and forms an actionable plan moving forward.  


From here, you will start to progress to the third stage, the Ideate phase. In our next article, we will dive into asking the right questions that’ll narrow in on human-centric solutions. Design thinking is a useful technique when tackling problems that are either unknown or unclear. The essential pillars of design thinking are all about re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, brainstorming to think outside of the obvious solutions, and adopting a hands-on approach in the design thinking prototype stage and testing stage. In our next article, we’ll dive right into the ideate stage. This is the third step of the design thinking process where we generate tons of new ideas with the hope that will spark lots of amazing ideas, and then pairing them down to the ones with the most potential, based on practicality and innovation. 


But the bottom line and most important Anyone who is creating something intended to be used by another person can use design thinking to create human-centric products, services, content or designs. We know this because we’ve done exactly this when designing CloudApp and continuously do so as we create additional features. Streamline your design thinking process by Instantly sharing your work with others, receiving invaluable insight based on direct input and real user interaction, and enhance the success of your design thinking process. 



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