How to write a good problem statement?
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Why is it important to have a good problem statement?
Understanding the causes and ensuring that you fix a real problem is an important reason to have a well defined problem statement. One of the big problems that the world faces today is that there are a lot of good "solutions" that don't actually solve problems. In some cases, they may actually create new problems. A designer's key task is to solve problems. This is so fundamental to the role of the designer - that often it is missed or ignored because it is a basic assumption. A good designer is a good problem solver.
To begin ideation or the idea generation step, you must have a good understanding of the problem, who is impacted, how they are impacted, dependencies, associated risks and what has been done before. Understanding these factors enables an understanding of the system in which the problem must be solved. It also ensure that you are focused on a real problem - not just something that you think is a good idea. Good ideas are everywhere. But good solutions are not.
Let's look at an example problem. There is a great deal of rubbish and waste in Karachi, Pakistan. It has become a real issue and needs to be dealt with at a whole of system level. (See article on the problem here)
Steps to a good problem definition
State what you think is the problem that needs to be solved. Can you state it simply in one sentence? This may take you several attempts. The below is a good start. Example: There is a growing amount of rubbish in Karachi.
Ensure that the statement includes the impact. Why is this issue a problem? Example: There is a growing amount of rubbish in Karachi that is unsightly, causes diseases and reduces liveability in the city.
Who and how are they impacted by the problem ? You should include the key people, objects or organisations that are affected by the issue. Example: There is a growing amount of rubbish in Karachi that is unsightly, causes diseases and reduces liveability in the city for residents, visitors and businesses.
Are there underlying components or causes of the problem? This may be harder to define. An activity you can do to help you understand and define the causes and components is the 5 Whys. In our example, the rubbish has several key elements, there is inadequate infrastructure for removal leading to a backlog of rubbish. There are insufficient places to store rubbish when it has been collected. Due to these elements the process of dealing with rubbish has evolved, meaning recycling does not occur, rubbish is left lying on the street and people ignore rubbish. So when developing possible questions for a problem statement you may wish to break the problem statement into several new, more specific problems. Example 1: Rubbish is not regularly collected and removed from households and businesses due to insufficient collection processes, leading to a build up of waste left in the streets, this causes disease, obstacles and is unsightly Example 2: Rubbish collection exceeds the amount of allocated space in Karachi, therefore there is a backlog of rubbish that remains uncollected, leading to a build up of waste left in the streets, this causes disease, obstacles and is unsightly
So what? It's now time to ask yourself about what is the core of the problem. Is it that it is rubbish lying around? Is it that there is more rubbish than the space to store waste, or is it something else? The problem may be in this case, that there is so much rubbish being created that no matter how much space and how good the transportation, there will always be a problem with rubbish in Karachi. Would you fix the problem if you could find a place to store the rubbish? Would more regular rubbish removal fix the problem? If you could do both, would that solve the issue? My guess is - it wouldn't. However, these might be problems that could be fixed in the short term but they won't fix the deeper, more systemic problem. The short term parts of the problem must be fixed as well. So the problem now has several parts.
Rethink the problem. The problem described here is a wicked problem - so is hard to define. But a good start would be to describe it in the following way: Example: The citizens of Karachi are generating more rubbish than can be collected and removed which reduces the liability of the city for its residents, visitors and businesses.
Make the problem a question. To use the problem as a way to prompt ideas and solutions you now need to turn this into a question. This problem may have several parts to be addressed, you make think of these as focus areas for ideation. Example: How can the citizens of Karachi produce less waste? (Primary systemic issue) Example: How can the citizens of Karachi remove and deal with the existing waste on the streets? (Secondary issue)
Check that you haven't stated a solution in your problem. Often it is at this point that the statement may have evolved to include a solution, therefore removing some of the possible avenues for truly solving the deeper underlying issue. For example, We could have framed our problem by saying "How do we improve the infrastructure for waste removal in Karachi?" This creates a predefined set of parameters for the solution. The question being asked is constrained to solving "infrastructure". As noted above, infrastructure is only one part of the problem - and may not actually be a part of the final solution, however by focusing on this element we have automatically reduced the possible available ideas. If you are struggling with defining your problem, use the problem definition wizard in SparkTank (select create challenge and "solve a problem"). Our platform helps you correctly define the problem - so that your ideas can become viable solutions to solve the cause of your real problem - not just a symptom. Watch my video on YouTube or you can also download a template I use to help people think through their problem definition.
If you would like a hand in defining your problem, please contact me through our contact form.