Exploring Problems Worth Solving

Excerpts & Ideas from Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate, and Think


When businesses are faced with problems, there is often a specific solution they are hoping to implement. They, then, set forward with a course or plan to implement that solution. This solution doesn’t always provide the success or satisfaction that the business was aiming for, leaving feelings of confusion, disappointment, and frustration. Have you ever experienced the following thoughts:

  • Why didn’t this plan work?
  • What did we do wrong?
  • Is there just no solution?
  • Now what?

After ten years of user research projects, I realized that, though I was solving the problems that I was asked to solve, I wasn’t solving the right problems. In 2009, I founded Motivate Design to help businesses identify the problems they should be solving, and then designed and implemented solutions to meet those needs. Through research and design, the Motivate Design team developed a set of techniques, (you can find them in my new book Reframe) that can be applied to any business problem.

We will be highlighting this process through a series of posts on the Innovation Channel in an effort to spread this way of thinking. The key to this framework, however, is beginning the process with problem definition, so follow us as we cover the rest of the steps every Friday for the upcoming weeks all leading up to the Chief Innovation Summit in NYC on December 8-9. I hope to see you there!


Spend time on identifying and gaining clarity around the true problem your business is facing. People often think they are articulating a problem, but really are just discussing it’s limiting factors. Before attempting to define, solve, or execute on any problem, make sure you answer yes to the following questions:

  • Are you passionate about solving your problem?
  • Are your intentions motivated by a desire to see real change?
  • Are you fixing a problem that you want to solve?

Here are the four parts to narrowing in on a good problem statement:

  • Part 1 - is the Problem Space, which is the reality or condition that prevents the goal or the state from being achieved. Spend time thinking about the way things are currently being done—the status quo. What do you expect? What’s overdone?
  • Part 2 - is the Goal Space, which details the desired outcome or situation. (You can use “should” or “shouldn’t” because it’s how you want the experience to be.) The Goal Space includes your vision of how it would work in the perfect world.
  • Part 3 - is the Consequence. What’s going to change if I solve this problem? Answer the “So what?” Begin small and build up: Why is this a meaningful goal? How will it help people? How does it benefit the business? How does it benefit consumers? How does it benefit the industry? How could it benefit the world? In this case, the focus could be on community, energy preservation, or even learning/education.
  • Part 4 - is the Gaps and Barriers, which are the missing components or the reasons why the problem hasn’t been solved. Barriers can emerge from social, cultural, physical, technological, and industrial areas.

These four components (what it could be, what it is right now, why it matters, and what is missing/blocking) lead to a simple, powerful Problem Brief and lay the correct type of foundation, and help to define the real problem, which is the first step in the Reframework.

Here’s an easier way of thinking about it, but make sure you take into consideration all of the above:



It’s different for every situation. Yet, at a minimum, it’s important to remember that any solution should support, satisfy, and align with these four critical areas:

  1. The Business Environment (internal and external to the organization)
  2. The Brand
  3. The Products and Services
  4. The Users


When reviewing the business environment, we ask questions like which products are the best sellers, which realize the most profit and which show the greatest potential for growth? The answers can sometimes directly challenge the preliminary preconceptions about which direction the solution should go, which is sometimes also the case when we ask about what resources are available from a people, process and technology standpoint. It’s not unusual to discover opportunities or challenges that cause a shift in thinking. When we research market dynamics relative to the client’s business, sometimes developments in government policy or trends in consumer habits can expose opportunities to innovate.


If one accepts that successful user experiences should always bridge business goals with customer needs and if one accepts that accurately expressing the essence of the brand is always a business goal, then it follows that the team needs to truly understand the essence of the brand in order to properly convey it to the public. Our discovery process ensures that not only does the team understand the brand, but that the brand is well articulated in the first place. In too many instances, the brand vision is not clear enough at the highest level, which makes it necessary to redirect efforts to address weaknesses before proceeding with the challenge originally presented by the client.


It goes without saying that having a good understanding of the products and services is imperative in order to create exceptional experiences around them. Occasionally, during this part of our audit, some gaps and cracks appear that need to be filled. One common shortcoming that we discover is a poorly-designed product architecture. In that case, some modeling and organization needs to take place before proceeding. Other times, as previously mentioned, the team’s focus may shift to a product or service that wasn't part of the original plan in order to pursue a greater, untapped opportunity. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for current product offerings to be overhauled as a result of insights we may uncover during our discovery research. In rarer cases--but it can happen--the whole business model may shift.


Finally, but not least important by any stretch, are the users. Having a thorough, empathetic understanding of what their world looks like, what it feels like to walk in their shoes, their values, frustrations, etc. can lead to the biggest ideas and possibly the most significant deviations from what project sponsors originally thought was the best answer to what seemed like a clear problem.


By using these techniques to identify and define your problem, you can easily enter the next phase of the process: applying a different lens to the problem, identifying the opportunity spaces that exist and ideating from there. Correctly shaping and personifying your problems will steer brainstorming toward the best solution for the business, brand, product/service, and user.


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