Framing Problems: Part 1 of 3

Some stories and how-to’s to equip your team align your multidisciplinary team around business challenges, before investing in design sprints and solutioning.

The role of problem framing

I spend a healthy amount of time talking with people and organizations trying to answer the question, “What’s next?”

One of the first questions I’ll ask them is, “What problem are you working on?” On more occasions than not, the answers revolve around the solutions they’re looking to build.

Solutions are easier to talk about. They’re linear: problem — solution.

But the problem with solutions is that they don’t invite new thinking or curiosity into the discussion.

As a result, the process goes something like this:

  • Tasked from their stakeholders with solving a new business challenge, the team spends several weeks or months reviewing their research data or performing new research
  • Once they know enough about the issue, they agree upon a solution and present it back to the stakeholders for approval
  • If approved, they write up detailed specs about what that solution will be, and exactly how it will work
  • Others from inside their company or external contractors are invited into the discussion and the specs shared with them so that they can build the solution the initial group decided upon
  • The team builds and launches that solution over the course of months, often not speaking with users until they have something the users can reliably test — this is their interpretation of building a lean MVP
  • When the product launches, they’re confused that users are too stupid to use the product correctly, or worst case, at all
  • The team huddles up and decides the UX needs to be improved
  • The same process is repeated until they eventually get it right, or (more likely) the project is ultimately killed because of poor market fit

What a huge waste of time and money.

If, instead, this team had focused on understanding and prioritizing the problem first, they would have had a much better chance of building the right solution, or killing it because it wasn’t a problem worth solving.

By framing a problem, we’re able to answer 2 critical questions, up front:

  1. Does everyone involved in and impacted by this problem understand it well enough?
  2. Is this a problem worth solving?

In this 3-part series, I’m going to first create context about the importance of problem framing. Then, in the next 2 articles, I’m going to share with you a 1-day (2-part) problem framing process my group uses.

My goal is to provide you with a problem framing framework you can use on your company’s next big business opportunity.

A real life story about problem framing

I was born with my Dad’s skinny, little chicken legs. During my 20s I attempted to solve this dilemma by squatting 300 lbs, regularly. It worked, sorta…

My legs grew. But what I didn’t consider was the beating my back and knees were taking.

Today, at 41, my 2 lower discs (L4 and L5) are herniated and my right knee is kinda squeaky. What makes it worse? Sitting at a desk all day.

So about 4 months ago I started researching healthier working options. One pretty obvious solution was to stand and move around more during the day; i.e. avoid sitting in a shitty chair for 6 hours at-a-time.

While googling around, I found all sorts of options. I ultimately decided to go with Fully’s standing desk and chair — Jarvis.

It was simple, easy-to-use, and had great reviews. Most importantly, it was designed to make sure I was productive, comfortable and healthy, whether sitting or standing, at home or in the office.

My Jarvis setup within my home office.

But before I found Fully, I found The Altwork Station.

That’s not me.

The Altwork Station promises to be the new way to work. More specifically, they claim to make you more productive… How on Earth will laying down while I’m working make me more productive? If I want to lay down and work (I don’t), I’d lay in bed… I guess. Ack, no!

Bewildered, I tried to imagine what problem Altwork was attempting to solve and the type of person that would spend $8,500 on a desk / couch / dentist’s chair looking… thing.

Where would I fit it?
Wouldn’t it be weird if someone walked over while I’m laying down?
Wouldn’t I fall asleep (more)?
What about gravity and stuff?.. wouldn’t all the crap on my desk fall on my face?

Fast Company shared my concerns in their review of the Altwork Station.

In the end, I have no idea if Altwork has sold 1 million of their stations, or 3. What I do know is that I wouldn’t buy it for the same reason I wouldn’t buy a Segway; i.e. existing solutions are simpler, better, and cheaper.

The difference between goals and problems

Goals are exciting. They inspire us. We love goals so much that we buy books that help us create goals to set better goals.

No? Only me?

But when it comes to selling products and services, it’s not our goals that inspire others to buy, but the problems we’re helping them solve for themselves. Or as Clay Christensen explains it, people hire products and services to do a specific job for them.

Take, for example, SpaceX’s goal:

“SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today, SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this possible, with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.”


But I wouldn’t spend $100,000 on a ticket to Mars because Elon thinks it’s exciting. I would however spend $100,000 if I believed going to Mars on a SpaceX rocket would solve a problem I had or performed a job I value enough.

Now let’s review Altwork’s goals. They say:

“We believe it’s time to move beyond obsolete tables and chairs that constrain our creativity and diminish our health.”

Noble and true — the tables and chairs our grandparents used, can stand to be innovated. But before you begin creating, you need to get crystal clear on the problem you’re solving, for the people you’re solving it for. Otherwise, you’re going to leap toward your isolated view of the problem, and build solutions for yourself.

And as Uri Levine of Waze warns, we must…

“Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”

In the case of Altwork, the problem is not clear; e.g. What does it mean to call a table and chair obsolete? I see lots of tables and chairs everywhere I go. Are we talking about the utter annihilation of every table and chair in existence?

And does a table or chair, themselves, constrain our health? Or is it that we have unhealthy habits that need to be unlearned so that we’re willing to work in newer, healthier, more productive environments?

The difference in how people understand and apply significance to these questions will make huge impacts on the solutions they’ll find valuable enough to buy.

Failure to ask these questions and get clear on the problem will result in over-engineered, and perhaps, awkward solutions that don’t solve the problem or do the job your customers are looking to fulfill.

But it’s not only Altwork. Many organizations fail to realize the importance of getting clear on the problem they’re solving, before building — whether it’s a new chair, a new screen in their app, or an entirely new service.

Innovation Designer @ New Haircut |