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GuidesProduct developmentWhat is problem framing?

What is problem framing?

Last updated

14 May 2023

Reviewed by

Eliz Ayaydin

Making a profit from your work requires more than just solving a problem—it requires solving the most relevant problems your prospective customers face. How do you make sure the fruits of your labor will actually translate to a marketable product? Often enough, you don't, unless you go out of your way to ensure it.

Problem framing is an efficient method for discovering which problems your market base needs solutions for. Align your creative talents accordingly, and your product's end users will help you achieve an offering that provides both customer satisfaction and revenue growth.

Problem framing

Problem framing is the first solid step in any product development plan. But before you set out to solve a problem, you need to ensure your problem-solving ambitions are aimed wisely to begin with. 

A well-defined problem that's aligned with market demand is much more important than a solution to something the market doesn't even consider a problem! After all, would you rather have a proper medical diagnosis, even without a cure, than the cure to an ailment you don't have?

Problem framing is the process of discovering and defining a problem shared by your target market. It comes from the design thinking philosophy, a creative problem framework that puts users at the center of product development. Without problem framing, customers may have trouble seeing just how useful your product is—or worse, decide it isn't.

When should you use the problem-framing method?

Problem framing should be used anytime you need to identify the right issue to focus on. It’s very useful before any major product development stage. It could even save a company that's experiencing negative reception to its products. Many companies have found success after their first unsuccessful efforts by pivoting to new products that more accurately address a pressing concern in their target market.

Whenever product development involves a continual process, new problems will likely emerge. This is where problem framing leads to problem reframing, as the emergence of new problems is expected and anticipated.

It could be said that the best invention is simply noticing when an invention isn't needed after all and then directing your efforts elsewhere. Even when some issue clearly exists, how you resolve it depends on properly framing it first.

With the proper frame for any given challenge, you'll have a better idea of when paring down your efforts and analyzing the true nature of the problem is appropriate.

Consider the following examples of when problem framing might be useful:

  • If customers aren't receptive to a major new product release

  • When teams or employees seem to all be working on different problems

  • If staff seem to agree on which problem must be solved, but they all redefine it in their own way

  • When products or prototypes seem noticeably flawed or full of bugs

  • Whenever user complaints rise

  • When competitors with seemingly inferior products capture more market share

  • Whenever development, support, and other essential efforts seem misguided or generate low ROI

  • At the start of a project, when the stakes are low, to change direction

Even if an issue seems obvious, problem framing may be a better way forward when attempted solutions haven't been truly effective. When possible, it’s best practice to do a problem-framing exercise at the start of any project.

How does problem framing help?

For large enterprises and ambitious young startups alike, problem framing is the ultimate way to start fresh and focus your team's goals. Not all problems require a solution—and those that do may be more easily solved than expected, if only you had greater clarity around why the problem exists in the first place.

Do your customers want a solution to a problem at least as much as your development team? If not, you may be barking up the wrong tree. Are you sure a valid problem isn't just a smaller aspect of a bigger problem you're not yet aware of? It’s important to know you're addressing the core issue.

Problem framing is useful for three fundamental purposes:

  • Finding a problem worth solving

  • Aligning stakeholder perspectives

  • Reducing wasted time, money, or other resources

To ensure you're tackling key challenges, an effective problem-framing template will help you answer the most pressing question: where exactly should you aim your creative problem-solving?

The four steps of the problem-framing process

1. Define the problem

A poor definition of a problem can itself be a problem—and it's not one worth having. To get to the root of the problem, start with a collaborative session to identify one concise problem statement.

Forbes suggests beginning with a 40-word statement, then paring it down to 20, 10, and then five words. The more simple your definition is, the easier it is for everyone to remember it. 

This step may also require reframing the problem, where you should focus on the future long-term effects and ask questions like “Are you sure we are solving the right problem? How do we know this is the right issue?”

2. Prioritize the problem

The beauty of teamwork is that you can address multiple issues at once. But efforts still must be meaningfully prioritized. Place smaller problems within the context of the single definition you created in step one, which should serve as a guiding principle that all other efforts ladder up to.

3. Understand the problem

Conduct research that will help provide in-depth context around the problem space. Start by forming a good research question. By now, you've narrowed your focus—but during research, allow your attention to broaden and explore the wider context of the problem. This requires challenging previous assumptions, identifying what we know to be true and how much we have assumed to be true.

Consider how to measure the problem. When did it begin? What other events occurred? Context is key. Encourage your team to keep asking questions until you become experts in the problem space.

4. Approve the solution

Once you've established the problem, prioritized it, and learned everything about it, you must determine the appropriate solution. This could be a performance benchmark, a novel design feature, or a new business relationship that fulfills a missing service.

Note that this is an approval of the solution, not the solution itself. Being the last step of the problem-framing—and not the problem-solving—process, the matter at hand is to define a solution. Of course, this could change as new information comes, but the most important thing is putting the user at the center of the approved solution.

Next steps after problem framing

Once your problem is artfully framed, prioritized, and vetted with research, the team pursues a suitable, agreed-on solution. As you work towards the solution, you can test your problem and gauge whether your new efforts have the intended effect.

If they don’t, you may take to problem reframing, ensuring you aren't missing some game-changing perspective. Note that the more accurately you can measure the problem, the more specific the solution becomes—making sophisticated research and analytics tools an important part of any problem- and solution-framing process.

Example of problem framing

One heart-warming example of problem framing comes from a Los Angeles dog rescue. Recognizing the problem of too many shelter animals but not enough adoptions, shelter founder Lori Weise framed the problem more accurately to begin with: too many dogs were entering the shelters in the first place.

Exploring the issue, she found that as many as 30% of shelter dogs were surrendered by their owners, who were often pressed into it by unaccommodating landlords, excessive vet bills, and other financial pressures. Focusing on this over the alternative—relentlessly promoting adoptions—Lori started a system to help owners keep their dogs in the first place.

Her staff began non-judgmentally asking owners if they would prefer keeping their dogs. If they answered yes, the staff would make resources available to help them keep their beloved pets. It worked, and it even reduced costs, from around $85 per adopted pet to only $60 to prevent the need for another adoption.


What is problem framing and reframing?

Framing a problem is where you begin the process of discovering which problem, if solved, would pave the way to the most significant benefits for the company and end-user. Reframing a problem is how you shift perspectives of a known problem to encourage outside-the-box thinking. This is usually a great exercise to do at the start of a project or product development process.

Defining the major obstacle to user success is a matter of problem framing—but seeing that problem in a new light is problem reframing. With reframing, you challenge yourself to apply different ideas and resources to a solution that you otherwise wouldn't have considered.

For example, how sure are you that a problem of increased customer complaints is a support issue when you already put enormous resources into customer service? What if it's actually a marketing problem, and your ad copy is promising solutions the product doesn't truly provide? Reframing keeps you open to new possibilities.

What is solution framing?

Solution framing is an important part of the "approve the solution" step explained above. It's the process of establishing a good starting point for solving the problem you've identified. Just like problem framing, solution framing doesn't rest until multiple possibilities are distilled into one leading solution to move forward with.

There may be multiple solutions to the same problem, but with solution framing, you determine the likeliest, highest-value solution.

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