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Design Thinking: Finding the Problem


This is the second article from a series of three. My intention is to help newbies/non-designers to see clearly when they might want to use a tool or a method in a Design Thinking (DT) project timeline. In this article I focus on the first part of a project, with tools and methods to help you find the real problem that needs to be solved. The first article is an introduction to the DT mindset. The third article is about methodologies to create an effective solution.

A quick recap: The Mindset

In this step-by-step article, I break down my way of work in 10 How to questions. I answer them by pointing out which tool, method or approach I use, what should be my way of thinking (convergent or divergent), and if the focus is on the problem or on the solution. Then, I connect it with the Stanford d.School framework, to show how all of this can make sense together.


To make this article more straight to the point, I answer each question with the main goal of the step, a few methods that I apply more often, and some other factors you might want to keep in mind when building your own framework.

Let’s start

1.How to listen to clients?

  • focus: PROBLEM
  • way of thinking: DIVERGENT
  • goal: The project has not started yet. But this first contact is very important. It doesn’t matter if you are doing this as an employee in a company or if you represent a consultant agency. It’s crucial to listen to your client with an open heart and avoid judging them.
  • method:
    The 5 Whys — Asking open questions is highly important to avoid monosyllabic answers (Yes or No). This will help you guide the conversation and try to discover the prime issue.
  • other things to keep in mind: briefing, taking notes, reading people, recording, body language, open questions.

2. How to convert clients’ problems into a challenge?

  • focus: PROBLEM
  • way of thinking: CONVERGENT
  • goal: When the project starts, it is time to map out how the client’s problems or needs are connected with the whole ecosystem around it. This means: people, teams, areas, competitors, projects, and processes inside and outside the company. With that broad view of the range of the issue, it is time to write the problem into a challenge. This is a positive way to write down a problem in a question format that helps all team members in the project to go through the same path.
  • methods:
    Define Success — Think about this as a futuristic exercise. At Google Design Sprint they call it “start at the end”. The questions go something like this: Imagine that we have finished the project. What have we achieved?What makes us feel that it was a successful project?
    Frame your design challenge — A step by step to transform the problem into a question.
    Value Proposition Canvas (VCP) — This is a valuable tool to help your client see how precious it is to work with a human-centered mindset. It is not so common to use this in the early stages of a project. However, when I use it, I get great results and start with the right foot.
  • other things to keep in mind: scheduling meetings, stakeholders, parking lot of ideas and other boards, building an agenda, contextual research plan.

3. How to understand the challenge?

  • focus: PROBLEM
  • way of thinking: DIVERGENT
  • goal: In order to understand the challenge, you need need to see it from different perspectives. The three points of view are: client, customer, and market. They might be impacted by the problem in different ways, and the solution they are expecting will often diverge. From my perspective, qualitative and quantitative research have to walk side by side and learn from each other (watch this TED talk). You will need to do more research along the project. Keep that in mind — especially — when reading questions 8 and 10.
  • methods:
    Golden Circle: Usually clients share their thoughts but they have few documents about how things work in the company. You may want to invest some time filling up the canvas with them to understand the real purpose of the company.
    Service blueprint: This is another good activity to do together with your client. Break down the service by drawing this process together.
    Ecosystem: Look around you. At a first look, competitors might be the ones who do the same things as your client. But if your customer decides to buy flowers instead of chocolates for a gift, aren’t different producers competing for the same money? This is a good methodology to study this issue.
    Analogies: This is my favorite methodology. To widen up your view, think about other fields. What can you learn from other industries? You are probably not the first one to face this challenge. By using analogies you can learn a lot!
    Interview: To get in the customer’s shoes you need to exercise empathy. The most relevant tool is to interview the users. Talking to Humans is one of the best books about it -­ the Kindle version is only $0.99!
    User Journey: This is one of the most famous methods. You can do it right after the interviews. At this point you will probably see the journey clearly. Make sure you get all the steps by drawing a map
  • other things to keep in mind: diary study, business model canvas (BMC), benchmarking studies, eras map, POEMS, recruiting tools.

4. How to organize the learning points?

  • focus: PROBLEM
  • way of thinking: CONVERGENT
  • goal: To make the proper use of all collected learning points, you need a few tools to understand what are the most relevant ones and how to connect them. At the end of this stage you should know all the principles to guide you through the right solution.
  • methods:
    Personas and Empathy Map: These will help you increase your empathy level and also work as a good exercise to be applied on the extended members of the team.
    Find themes: This helps to connect information and find patterns.
    Experience/Design Principles: Once you realize the connections it is time to write them as principles. This will guide you to design the solution.
  • other things to keep in mind: job to be done, observation insights, descriptive value web, download learnings.

The next step will be to create a solution.
Also, if you want to get into the DT mindset, you should read the first article.

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