One refrain we will repeat in this lesson is that the stages of the design thinking process are tightly linked and often occur simultaneously. The define stage is no exception.

In the define stage, the goal is to determine what problem our design will attempt to solve.

While there are many strategies for defining the problem, the underlying method is to leverage user research that we conducted during the “empathize” stage. In doing so, we continue empathizing with users as we turn our attention to defining the problem. By referring to data from our users, we have a better chance of identifying a problem that actually reflects their needs.


As is true for other stages of the design thinking process, outcomes from the define stage impact what we do next. Once we have defined a problem, we align all other decisions in an attempt to solve it. Thus, it’s important that we spend time understanding the problem before we continue.

In a way, defining the problem is like picking a destination for a trip. With a destination in mind, we can take purposeful strides in that direction. As we move forward, we want to consistently check to see if we’re on the right track. While the initial destination should be carefully selected, we must be ready to shift course if the need arises. We don’t want to arrive at our destination only to realize that no one wants to be there! Similarly, we don’t want to deliver a solution to a problem that is irrelevant to our users.


One standard output of the define stage is a problem statement, which is a brief description of the problem that the design intends to solve. This statement should focus on one problem, and it should not include any solutions or product features. In team projects, many stakeholders will access the problem statement throughout the design process. Therefore, we want to write a clear statement that provides the necessary context.

Prior to conducting user research, we may craft a preliminary problem statement to focus our research efforts. After conducting user research, we must review the initial problem statement. We may make updates to ensure that it accurately reflects a challenge that users are experiencing.

While there are many approaches to writing a problem statement, we’ll introduce a strategy called the “5 W’s”, by the Nielsen Norman Group. With this approach, we create a problem statement by answering a set of questions:

  • Who is affected by the problem?
  • What is the problem?
  • Where does this problem occur?
  • When does the problem occur?
  • Why does the problem occur? Why is the problem important?

To answer these questions, we must turn to user research. If we are unable to answer these questions, we might want to conduct additional research! One suggestion is to jot down the data point that inspires each answer. This can help us visualize the connection between our user research and the problem we ultimately identify.

Once we have responded to the 5 W’s, we can format it into a problem statement like this:

In the United States, adults report that it is difficult to meet people who share similar hobbies and interests. They want to befriend like-minded people, but they don’t know where to start. Additionally, it can be difficult to maintain friendships with people they don’t see on a regular basis. This problem is important because they want to enjoy good company in their free time.

Note that problem statements may look different in different settings — this is just one example for putting it together.

The problem statement will, directly and indirectly, guide our decisions for the rest of our design project. While it would be ideal to identify the right problem right away, that’s not always what happens. During our first lap through the “define” stage, we strive to make the most accurate problem statement with the information that is available. As we develop the design and receive more feedback, we can revisit the problem statement to make adjustments.


Setup: Follow the instructions in the website to the right to duplicate and embed the Miro board.

Task: Use the 5 W’s method to create a problem statement that aligns with user research.

Miro frames: Research Report, 5 W’s, Problem Statement

  1. Navigate to the Research Report on the Miro board.
  2. Read the report and use this information to answer the 5 W’s.
  3. Record answers on the 5 W’s frame in Miro.
  4. Use your answers to the 5 W’s to write a problem statement. Record this on the Problem Statement frame in Miro.

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