A Guide to defining the problem space


What does it mean to define the problem space?

Defining the problem space is the second phase of the design thinking process within the context of HCD; it, together with empathy, falls under the inspiration phase [1]. This step attempts to understand the problem holistically based on data from the empathize phase and frames the scope within which this problem exists for your given set of users by gleaning off insights and needs from user research [2]. 

Why is it important?

As designers, we often have innate biases that can influence the design of our solutions, leaving us unable to create delightful products that are useful to the end-users we are designing for. Actively participating in defining the problem space allows us to avoid this because our sole goal at this stage is to interpret data as is it, void of any internal biases[3]. We are forced to embrace ambiguity and go in with the mindset of investigators seeking to get to the bottom of the matter. 

This, in turn, does the following :

  • Inform us how well we have empathized with our users and if there is a need to collect more data.
  • It gives a solid foundation upon which ideation can occur.
  • Create problem statements that are aligned with the lived experiences of our users.

How do we get to the bottom of the matter ( 3 Steps to define the problem space)?

1.Clarifying the Problem

Aim to understand the needs of your users in as granular a manner as possible this is the first step in the design thinking process called empathy. In this step we aim to understand the feelings, needs and pain points of the users we are designing for .We drop our assumptions and perform user research which will later be analysed to gain actionable insights  . You will have to observe ,engage and immerse yourself in the experience to do this effectively. 

Methods of gathering data:

  • Root cause analysis (5 whys )


Problem: Patients don’t attend their doctor’s appointment

Why? → Because patients don’t know the appointment time

Why?  → Because the appointment message doesn’t alert them before the session

Why? → Because the messages don’t have an alert feature

Why? → Because the system does not link patients to their doctors.

Why?  → Because the system does not have a personalised page.

The process of 5 whys is effective because it can often lead us to the unexpected cause of the problem by systematically breaking down all the symptoms till we reach the smallest unit (the root problem) . By using this method we are guaranteed that we will resolve all the issues in totality and not have problems occurring at other levels when a solution is implemented.

Some other methods include:

  • Interviews
  • Shadowing 
  • Bodystorming 
  • User journal 
  • Secondary research 

2.Data Analysis
To define the problem space, we need to take an analytical look at our data. During the empathize phase, you might have collected some quantitative and qualitative data via interviews, surveys, shadowing, bodystorming(a way of subjecting a researcher’s own body to physically experience a situation to ideate[8]), user journals, in the case of web platforms, heat maps, etc.  

Collate this data and analyze it by drawing graphs based on it, performing sentiment analysis on the interviews, and employing as many analytical tools as possible to distil the information and uncover insights.

Ultimately, by analyzing the problem from a data standpoint, you not only uncover insights, but you can also validate the problem and understand how pressing it is for your users.

These analyses are visually summarised using graphs, user personas, etc. 

User Personas seek to answer who your users are (demographic data), their motivations, their needs, and what barriers they face in attaining their goals. It is essential to create these personas based on factual information you have gathered to ensure accuracy in the definition of your problem and, consequently, the design of your solution.

3.The end goal (Problem statement)

Ultimately, the goal of the definition stage is to define the problem accurately and then frame the design challenge, which is done via a problem statement. A problem statement aims to summarise key aspects of the problem and word the issue in a way that is actionable by answering the five W’s [5]:

  • Who experiences the problem?
  • What exactly is the problem?
  • When did/is the problem taking place?
  • Where do we see this problem manifesting?
  • Why is this a problem, or why does this matter?

Example: Using the same patients – doctor problem

“Patients who book hospital services online need to connect with their doctors because they are often left unaware of appointments and miss them.”


Who experiences it? → Patients who book hospital services online

What is the problem? → Patients are unaware of appointments

Where? → Online

When? → on days of appointments

Why? → They miss appointments

Blog by: Christopher Kuzagbe | Wendy Essuman | David Norman Amatey Masoperh


[1]”Chapter 17. Analyzing Community Problems and Solutions | Section 3. Defining and Analyzing the Problem | Main Section | Community Tool Box”,, 2021. [Online]. Available:[Accessed: 06- Oct- 2021].

[2]”Defining the problem | SMILE”,, 2021. [Online]. Available:[Accessed: 06- Oct- 2021].

[3]”Design Thinking: Empathise,” YouTube, Mindful Marks, 2018.[Video file]. Available: [Accessed: 06- Oct- 2021].

[4]”Design Thinking: Define,” YouTube, Mindful Marks, 2018.[Video file]. Available: [Accessed: 06- Oct- 2021].

[5]”Validating our Problem Statement and Hypothesis”,, 2021. [Online]. Available:[Accessed: 06- Oct- 2021].

[6]”Validate the Problem Before you Validate Your Idea”, Simpleweb, 2021. [Online]. Available:[Accessed: 06- Oct- 2021].

[7]”Design Kit”,, 2021. [Online]. Available:[Accessed: 06- Oct- 2021].

20 thoughts on “A Guide to defining the problem space

  1. Good job on the analysis and also at this stage is it a combination of secondary research and primary research?

    1. Yes this is the stage where both primary and secondary research are important , because secondary research allows you to actually have an in-depth understanding of the problem from the perspective of another person who has encountered it before and primary research provides you with the benefit of added context because you understand the problem based on what is happening on the ground.

  2. This is an excellent guide to defining the problem space. I like the 3 steps you guys gave to define the problem space. They are straightforward and easy to follow.

  3. I enjoy reading this and I think overall the end goal here is to gain the deepest understanding of the user’s problem. In addition to root cause analysis, you can also leverage the design thinking process to understand the user’s needs and avoid any biased assumptions you might have

  4. This is a great piece on defining the problem space, great job. Outlining the steps and using examples made it clear and easy to follow. Would one also include the root cause from the 5 whys in the problem statement or one would only need to include the general problem?

    1. I think the root cause should be in the Problem statement. The root cause will be the answer to the “why” question in the problem statement

  5. A good piece of writing. Kudos! The steps were evident, especially the “End Goal” on defining a good problem space and breaking it down by the 5 W’s.

  6. This was good read. I think that going through the 5 Whys process is a good direction in identifying the problem. I guess what many us struggle with is wanting to build out our ideas in hopes that we can get a market for it. My question then is, what do you do when upon discovering the root problem, you realize you don’t have the capacity/ skillset to solve it, assuming the needed solution may not even be tech based.

  7. This guide was straightforward to follow while maintaining a very professional outline. When it comes to defining the problem, it can get confusing as there are multiple facets involved. This blog broke down those steps and made them easily understandable.

  8. Great analysis in defining the problem space and the different steps to help with this. I like how you tied the point of how we define the end goal with the 5 W’s.. Kudos!

  9. Great piece of work, The analysis was so easy to follow and straight to the point. I liked how you explained the 3 processes of getting to the bottom of a problem given.

  10. Good read, the article breaks down the process in a very simple way. The 3 steps give the guide structure and really help define the problem space. It is a 5 stars from me.

  11. Very interesting read, great work, I enjoyed reading about the importance of data and its analysis in helping uncover useful information and helpful insights.

  12. Great article; I enjoyed reading it! I am tempted to ask myself sometimes why specifically 5 whys to get the root cause? 🙂 …just passing by.

  13. I definitely did not see root cause analysis as one of the ways in writing the problem statement but now I see how it’s a great method to use. Great job on providing a clear and easy-to-understand guide on defining the problem space.

  14. I think sometimes we get so attached to a product or idea that we forget to take a step back and find out if it actually solves the problems of the people we are designing the product for. I think you did a great job explaining why it’s important to put biases and assumptions aside and first engage with your target market and understand the root problems they’re facing.

  15. Thanks for highlighting all the 3 steps in a concise and clear way. from clarifying the problem asking ourselves the 5 whys to get to the root problem, analyzing the data gathered through the empathy stage of understanding the users and lastly framing the problem statement.

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