We focus too much on problem solving. The goal of research is widely claimed to be about empathy building and understanding so we can identify and solve problems, and that’s not wrong. But it ignores one of the most important parts of research as an input for design strategy. Research helps produce a problem frame.
Think of a given design activity as a canvas of opportunity. At the beginning, there’s “whitespace.” That’s not to imply that the problem has no existing baggage – nearly every single design problem comes with an existing set of interconnections that help shape research. But the whitespace is our own, in our head, because we haven’t yet set a boundary for exploration. The first step towards a problem frame is during the creation of a research plan.
We recently worked with a customer, building software that would help college students. We were going to conduct research with those students, and the customer had described an initial design space: attrition and retention of community college students. But within that frame, we had the whitespace I described above. There was no specifics to the problem. It was big, broad, and conceptual.
Our research plan became our first problem frame, and it started to narrow the whitespace. Our frame was to understand how college students think about their degree plans, get help with course selection, and make decisions about graduation. This asserts a fence around a conceptual problem; it says “Our problem space does not include sports and athletics, dorms, tutoring, payment…” That’s not to say that our problem space WON’T include those in the future. It’s likely that students do drop out of school because of things related to tutoring and payments. But for now, we’ve put stakes in the ground around our workspace.
As we conducted research, those stakes moved around, and tightened, narrowing the problem frame. Our research plan stayed consistent, as we are typically reluctant to change our protocol during field activities. With each participant, we included the same style of questions, the same participatory design exercises, the same screener for student types, and the same overall approach. But our understanding, and our whitespace, started to fill in. Each session with a student began to answer questions and add more, and create a narrative of a backdrop of higher education, upon which degree decisions are made. We found students making decisions reactively based on time and financial pressures. We saw students receiving incorrect and incomplete information from advisors, and proactive students actually correcting their advisors. We saw students receiving pressure from their parents to complete a degree, and some students receiving pressure from their parents to drop out and get a job to support their lower-income family. And we heard story after story of students going deeper and deeper into debt, without a clear pathway towards graduation.
We continued to informally synthesize the research through conversation and reflection, and begin to identify a much more refined problem frame. Students don’t know, but under immense pressure, they make haphazard decisions. Their decisions about course selection and degree planning have the most lasting, and often negative, repercussions. This frame is much more constrained than our original articulation of “attrition” – our research has led us to a more concise description of opportunity.
We were again able to contain the problem with the articulation of a clean and simple value proposition. This is an assertion of the benefits a student will have if they use our product or service. It’s a promise we make to students: if they use our product or service, they will receive specific value, described in a specific way. This again shrinks the whitespace by solidifying the boundaries. An assertion: We promise to help college students make more informed decisions about course and degree plan selection, and react with ease when those decisions don’t go as intended. Now, our frame is much more targeted: our problem space has become manageable, because we can see its boundaries. We have constraints, which lead us seamlessly to design criteria.
The overly simplistic processes that are described as part of “design thinking” include a “synthesis” phase, something that’s explicit, with a beginning and an ending. But synthesis – sensemaking – happens continually, and as it happens, it changes the way we think about the problem. Our shifting frame happens continually. Each story we heard from students recast our problem frame. We initially excluded conversations of finance, but it became apparent that payment and funding is front and center in the conversation. We had no nuanced understanding of how degree pathways are presented to students, but as we gathered actual artifacts from students, we learned about the hand-made flowcharts, diagrams, and visuals created by both students and advisors to fill in what the university did not provide. On the surface, these are “problems to be solved” – if we see a gap in the paperwork given to students, we can easily give them a new chart or diagram. But this problem/solution thinking often creates a band aid on a systemic problem. Our goal is to frame the problem so that we can consider the problem “in the round” when we begin making solution recommendations.
That frame is fluid. Over the course of the project, it’s natural and helpful for a frame to become more and more firm, because without a foundation, we’ll struggle to find a foothold: we are at the whim of a decision maker’s changing prerogative, often driven by the noise of the market or culture. And without design criteria emerging from the frame, designers have no way to assess their own work. Their explorations are all equally good, but then they are all equally bad, too, and so – again – they are at the whim of an external, louder voice to make decisions. But when a problem frame is entrenched, it means a decision has been made, and decisions within established frames become really, really hard to shift.
As a process, one of our biggest creative goals is to build tacit knowledge in a space, and then remain objective enough in our subjective process as to avoid an expert blind spot. This blind spot – a real cognitive psychology phenomenon that limits an expert from understanding how a novice may approach a problem – can serve to further entrench the problem frame, making it concrete rather than flexible. And that means holding on to multiple frames at once, for as long as we can.