What's the Problem? Exactly.
As a solution designer or marketer, tuning into the context and experience of a person in a predicament is fundamental. There is no side-stepping around these questions:
A cogent, well-crafted problem statement answers these questions and provides clarity of context to solution designers and product marketers.
Why a Problem Statement Is Important
A problem involves a person in the context of a specific predicament. The problem is the raison d'être for any solution under consideration and, by extension, the gold for which the solution designer is mining.
A person experiencing a problem expresses it through emotion. Describing the circumstances causing their feelings in their words, however strong or subtle, provides a foundation of empathy to design an ideal solution. It is essential to recognize the emotion because it produces the personal resonance of the problem context, effectively influencing the thinking about the solution design.
A problem statement depicts the moment of opportunity when a transformational solution would make all the difference in a person's quality of life.
Problems Lead to Solutions
From a marketing perspective, borrowing a concept from Pragmatic Institute, a “market” is a group of people who share the same problem. Therefore, observing, understanding, and clearly describing a problem with resonance is the cornerstone of any solution, making a highly refined problem statement, or set of statements, all the more valuable.
Who needs or uses problem statements?
How To Create a Problem Statement
Here is an effective way to create a statement that expresses an understanding of the context and the problem so that it informs and influences solution designers and architects.
A problem statement is a sentence or a small set of sentences that includes these descriptive elements:
Actual Statements and Mad-Lib Styled Templates
You may be fortunate and can describe the problem statement by simply transcribing what you have observed people say in the context of experiencing an issue. That's a preferable way in which to produce a problem statement.
But, if you don't have that form of recall handy or need some help constructing a statement, then some fill-in-the-blank templates help demonstrate what this looks like.
To that end, here are some Mad-Lib-styled templates:
Here are two examples of problems statements based on conversations I've had and observations I've had in just the past day:
Best Practices and Pitfalls to Avoid
How To Create an Ideal Solution Statement
A common pitfall when designing a solution is rushing too quickly into describing how providers should implement the solution. A way to avoid that pitfall is to describe the solution's effect on the person instead of explaining how to solve the problem.
An ideal solution statement avoids this pitfall by informing and influencing solution designers and architects on what is needed while respecting their role in designing how to solve the solution.
An ideal solution statement is a sentence or two that:
Here are ideal solution statements based on the aforementioned problem statements:
Best Practices to Use and Pitfalls to Avoid
An ideal solution statement can easily feed into agile development practices in the form of a user story. Developers use user stories in agile solution development to create a backlog for product development.
The user story that is widely practiced in agile communities reads like this:
Here is how our example ideal solution statements can be transformed into a user story that can be used by an agile development team:
In addition to user stories, the problem statement described herein offers a richer contextual insight for solution designers to understand how their envisioned solution user experiences the problem.
Combining a problem statement with the ideal solution statement increases the potential for designers and architects to empathize with the problem. This insight improves their ability to design a solution that resonates with the intended user.
It also enhances the ability of a product manager to strategically position the solution in the market, communicating with resonance through marketing channels and sales efforts.
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When asked authentically, this three-syllable question creates connectedness, trust and understanding with anyone, even a person you have just met.
This matters because empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is an essential ingredient in the process of designing solutions for people.
How can we understand how others are feeling unless we ask? Asking the question unlocks the potential to observe problems that would otherwise go unobserved. This is a gold mine of understanding for solutions designers.
"How's Your Day?"
So, I routinely ask this question of people because:
So often, our daily existence and interactions are framed by disconnectedness and distrust. Asking this question to someone else is so counter-cultural. Consequently, it produces a measurable shift in the environment and it creates a sense of trust and connectedness.
One of my favorite contexts to ask the question is while getting things done on the phone, standing in line or chatting online.
Try It and See
Understanding how people in the world are feeling is easy. Just ask them. They'll tell you. Listen to them and learn what problems they are experiencing. It will inform your design decisions.
When the woman you are talking with senses that you care enough about her to ask how her day is going, it breathes fresh life into the conversation, even if she is having a bad day. Somehow when you care enough to ask, it reaffirms her humanity and causes her to reflect on how she's feeling.
If we, as solutions designers, practice this kind of authentic caring, listening and learning on an ongoing basis, we tap into a limitless supply of priceless insight for free by simply exercising a common courtesy towards another person.
Your empathy for people and willingness to be vulnerable enough to go there immensely affect your solution design.
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About Chuck Boudreau
(boo'-dro) - I help people design solutions collaboratively using agile design methods. I have 30+ years of experience in designing software solutions and business processes, leading cross-functional process improvement teams as a business analyst, and helping product managers define and position products using Pragmatic Marketing. I am passionate about user experience design, dog training, beating drums in musical ensembles and collaboratively creating solutions with people.