Overall, this short piece is focused on helping you better frame your design challenge. First, however, I’ll give you a quick introduction to human-centered design. Then I’ll briefly explore the importance of understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. And, finally, I’ll guide you through a simple method to help you properly frame your design challenge before you jump into actual research.
Introduction to human-centered design
IDEO, a global design an innovation company, thinks of human-centered design as a unique approach to problem-solving (IDEO, 2014). The company goes on as to state that it is a process that starts with the people you are designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs.
Joseph Giacomin, who is the Director of the Human Centered Design Institute at the Brunel University in the UK, argues that human-centered design is based on the use of techniques which communicate, interact, empathize and stimulate the people involved, obtaining an understanding of their needs, desires and experiences (Giacomin, 2014).
Speaking of human needs, economists, sociologists, philosophers and other social critics argue that “human needs” is a subjective and culturally relative concept (Zhang, 2009). Abraham Maslow, on the other hand, is famous for describing human needs as a hierarchically organized pyramid of five levels: physiological needs are at the bottom of the hierarchy and are followed by safety needs, social needs, esteem needs and self-actualization.
Referring back to human-centered design principles, it is possible to affirm that a human need is most likely met when a product or service is useful, usable and desirable (Sanders, 1992).
Meeting a human need — or to put it in another term, solving a real problem — is not an easy task. As a human-centered designer, you will always start from a place of not knowing what the solution to a given design challenge might be (IDEO, 2014). That’s why listening, thinking, building, and refining your way to an answer is key to problem-solving and, ultimately, to help humans live a better life.
In summary, human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world (IDEO, n.d.).
Understanding the problem
IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown argues that “the continuum of innovation is best thought as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps” (Brown, 2009). IDEO, as a company, is known for its well-structured design process. Basically, it consists of three steps (or phases): inspiration, ideation and implementation.
The inspiration phase revolves around “the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions” (Brown, 2009). It might sound a bit obvious, but it’s essential that you understand the problem you’re trying to solve before jumping into prototyping. And not understanding the problem, unfortunately, is more common than people realize. There are many examples out there of entrepreneurs — myself included — who built products without taking the time to validate the idea, or at its basic level, investigating the problem well enough.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that the problem you are working on or want to work on might not even exist. Initially, a problem is just a set of assumptions that need to be validated. And you’ll only understand if the problem really exists if you get out of the building (Blank and Dorf, 2012) and talk to people. Before doing that, however, it is important that you take the time to frame your design challenge. If you do it properly, your research will be a lot more focused and effective.
Framing your design challenge
Framing your design challenge is all about turning problems into opportunities, but not only that. It also organizes how you think about the problem and possible solutions. Besides, at moments of ambiguity, it helps to clarify where you should push your design (IDEO, n.d.).
IDEO has a pretty straightforward method to framing your design challenge and it goes like this, with a few adaptations:
The first step is to write your design challenge. It should be short and easy to remember, a single sentence that conveys the problem you want to solve. For example: make families spend more time together. Remember, however, that at this stage, your problem is just a set of assumptions that need to be validated.
The second step is to frame your design challenge into a question or, more specifically, a “How Might We” question. For example: How Might We help families spend more time together? A common mistake is to make your question too broad or too narrow, so take your time and carefully explore your design challenge.
The third step is to define the impact you would like to have in light of your design challenge.
The fourth step is to think about possible solutions to your problem. And here I’d like to stress that your perception of the problem might as well change as you get out of the building and talk to people. So don’t worry too much about it at an initial stage — you’ll most likely iterate on it.
The fifth step is to write some of the context and constraints that might surround the original question.
And the sixth and final step is to look back at your How Might We Question. As mentioned before, it is very common to change or adapt your “How Might We” question as you dig deeper into the problem. After all, innovation is not a linear process. Plus, making sure you are asking the right question is key to arriving at a useful, usable and desirable solution. On our example, it could be “How Might We design an experience that is appealing to all family members?”
That’s it! Hopefully, this short piece has been helpful somehow. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on it!