How to succeed in the define stage of design thinking

Written by 
Bryan Kitch
June 7, 2023
Four people with their attention focused on a piece of paper standing in front of a computer.
How to succeed in the define stage of design thinking
Written by 
Bryan Kitch
June 7, 2023

At this point in your design thinking process, you likely completed the ‘Empathize’ stage and are ready to start defining the problem your team needs to solve. The second stage — ‘Define’ — guides teams through the synthesis of user research to clarify the problem and draft up a good problem statement for your team to solve.

Many business leaders implement design thinking to address “Wicked Problems” in their operations, only to be disappointed by the outcomes.  Get the results you want by learning how experts handle design thinking’s Define phase. Doing so reduces your risk of do-overs and lackluster performance. 

When you give adequate attention to the Define stage, you’ll get the best outcomes — results that you can build upon later using a systematic, scalable approach. Here’s how.

Know the importance of defining in design thinking

The Define phase of design thinking is a stage devoted to crystallizing the problem and its complexities.

“Teams need to align on what problem they are solving,” explains LUMA Institute CEO Chris Pacione in a 2022 interview with the hosts of Water in Real Life. The show is an exploration of governments’ and private sectors’ management of complex issues surrounding the world’s most threatened natural resource. Global water management is just one of an illimitable number of applications where design thinking shows its value.

Chris laughs, recalling times when he neglected the Define phase (he calls it a mindset) of design thinking. “The last thing you want to do is march down too far and realize, ‘Oh, I thought we were solving this problem.’ I personally have experience doing a great job at solving… the wrong problem!” 

When you succeed in design thinking’s Define phase, you’ll prevent that headache.

What is the Define stage of design thinking?

The Define stage, also known as the ‘problem definition’ stage, is where the real problem is identified and framed. It involves gaining a deep understanding of the problem space, defining the specific needs and aspirations of the users or customers, and creating a clear, actionable problem statement that guides the design process.

The Define stage plays a pivotal role in the design thinking process for several reasons:

  • It provides focus and clarity: Without a clearly defined problem statement, the design process can become aimless and lack direction. The Define stage ensures that the team has a shared understanding of the problem they are trying to solve.
  • It places people at the center of the problem: The Define stage places a strong emphasis on empathy and understanding the user needs and aspirations. By deeply immersing themselves in the users' point of view (POV), the design team gains valuable insights into their pain points, desires, and motivations.
  • It improves alignment and collaboration: By involving stakeholders early on, the team can tap into their expertise and leverage their insights to create more holistic and effective solutions.
  • It serves as a springboard for ideas and innovative solutions: The more precisely the problem is defined, the more targeted and relevant the subsequent ideation phase and prototyping stages become.

Define the problem and how you’ll measure the solution

How exactly then, do you succeed at defining the problem? Chris says success in this phase begins when leaders look in the mirror. “It's critical that teams who are designing something for other people challenge their assumptions,” he says. “They also need to be allowed to challenge the assumptions of others. Success starts when they are given permission to do that.”

This questioning mindset is not just for the sake of playing devil's advocate. Instead, it's an expression of humility. “Good designers question themselves as much as they question others,” he says. “And always in the spirit of learning. Good designers don't seek to be right, they seek to understand rightly.” 

And that’s how you’ll know you’re succeeding in Define. As for the steps involved, you’ll be…

  • Helping users crystallize their own thoughts
  • Managing a non-linear process
  • Suspending the treatment of a problem’s symptoms to find the very root of the issue
  • Working toward the prevention of new problems while defining and solving the main issue

Let’s take a closer look at the different techniques and ways you can approach design thinking’s Define phase.

Help people organize their experiences 

One of the reasons superiors hesitate to interview users is because of the negativity they’ll be exposed to. It’s a legitimate concern. But once you recognize it, you can move forward for the sake of deep understanding of the problem. 

If you haven’t yet, this is a good point to pause and reflect on the insights from the empathize phase. What experiences arose during the empathy map exercise that you can reference and learn from?

Putting boundaries around complaints helps to keep them productive. You’re giving users the voice they need to feel heard and gain trust in your leadership as someone who’s going to work on their behalf to solve the problem. 

Create a structure for users to turn complaints into quantifiable findings. Use a multiple-choice form, set a time limit on grievance-airing, or encourage those who help define the problem stick around to contribute in the ‘Testing’ phase.

Get started now: 

Sign up for a free-forever Mural account and grab our Current Reality Tree template or Problem Statement Workshop template to bring issues into the light. These tools equip your people with the structure they need to be honest — without harmful negativity.

Allow design thinking’s Define phase to outgrow its tidy box

By nature, Wicked Problems are nuanced and incredibly complex. A good example of work matches that complexity by being flexible. 

Recently Dr. Mimi Smith of UC Davis and Dr. Daniel S Orlovich at Stanford were discussing the define phase of design thinking on Daniel’s podcast, Solving Resident Burnout, a show about med student burnout. Smith mentions that treating Define like a one-and-done task negates the outcomes of the “solution.” As an example, she points to didactics that at one point solved an issue, but now bore medical students. “We’ve all watched those e-modules that are like 15 years old,” she laughs, “and that’s especially when users are not paying attention.”

When you monitor for changes, there will often be little to report. But when a new development (say, in the prototype or test phases) does emerge, you’ll be ready to capture it and adjust.

Missed our resource on the first stage? Learn what questions you should ask during the empathize stage of design thinking.

Get started now 

When problem-defining observations don’t fit in categories you’ve created, resist the temptation to discard; instead, create another place for them. The Rose, Thorn, Bud template from Mural helps you keep and sort the thoughts that you may otherwise struggle to codify or group together. The template doesn’t just solve for complexity, it invites teams to reframe ideas by a few different categories: What’s working, what’s not going well, and what could be improved.

Find the root issue, not just its symptoms

A strongly-defined user POV comes from the user, customer, or participant. The problem is, often, users don’t know the root cause of the issue. You can help.

Consider Hack the Hallways, a real-life design thinking exercise conducted by Stanford researchers. The job was to address the following problem (symptom): 43% of Oakland, CA’s Roosevelt Middle School students reported feeling unsafe while in the hallways between classes. 

As the design thinking experts used their user empathy work to Define the problem, they discovered that a lack of student ownership regarding hallway culture induced a generalized anxiety during passing periods.

Related: How to overcome common challenges of design thinking

Had the researchers treated the symptom of fear, perhaps the faculty would have instituted a quiet policy, shortened passing periods, or hired more student resource officers (SROs). But by uncovering the root cause they saved the resources those ineffective solutions would have cost, and they implemented a practical, more long-lasting fix.

Get started now

With your other team members, frame your user inquiries in a way that uncovers surprising root causes by including questions that may seem at first glance like a change of subject. Mural’s Abstraction Laddering template prompts you and your collaborators to do exactly that. Problem Tree workshopping is another effective technique that exposes underlying fractures that help define Wicked Problems.

Define in a way that solves the main problem while preventing new ones

The nature of innovation is so exciting that it’s easy to build the problem-solving muscle while neglecting the problem-prevention one. However, in order to take full credit for the solution you’ll prototype, test, and implement, you must first take full responsibility for it, too, by addressing its impact from 360 degrees.

Define involves foresight about all the outcomes and their ramifications. List and solve for all possible results — not just positive ones. This requires the same bravery that empowers leaders to challenge assumptions.

When leaders get on the users’ level, they’re enlightened, but they can also get lost in the weeds.. Returning to the strategic level prevents the tunnel vision that may lose sight of cross-departmental (competing) goals and objectives or future frustrations.  

Get started now: 

Solving an issue while keeping an eye on future problem prevention has a way of adding back in another element of complexity. The good news is that with the right tools, it’s totally doable. Check out Mural’s Untangle a Complex Problem template. While this visual is great for retrospective work (figuring out what happened), we’ve also found it excels at helping you visualize problem-prevention, using cluster causes to foresee future frustrations that may arise from the various possible solutions you test out today. 

The How Might We brainstorming template is great for generating lots of ideas across multiple categories, helping teams spark new thinking and consider edge cases during the define stage of the design thinking process.

Design thinking depends on defined thinking

Now that you’ve seen the power of Define, it’s easier to appreciate its importance in design thinking — specifically, your new way of approaching the nebulous problems inevitable in business today. 

You’re ready to succeed in this aspect of the design thinking process. By combining this methodology with Mural’s visual work platform, you can begin  challenging assumptions, forming and changing your questions, brainstorming, and collaborating with your team on your first Wicked Problem. 

Sign up today to get a Free Forever Mural account which will give you access to hundreds of templates.

Once you’ve empathized with your end-user or customer, you can move to the next stage of design thinking: Ideate.

About the authors

About the authors

Bryan Kitch

Bryan Kitch

Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.