A guide to problem framing: best practices & templates

Written by 
David Young
 and 
  —  
June 22, 2023
Two people looking at a laptop and having a conversation

When creating solutions and products, it’s critical to correctly frame the problem you’re attempting to solve. 

Remember the Google Glass? What about the Segway? Taken on their own account, these were groundbreaking products with cutting-edge technology. No one had seen anything like them before. Yet they failed for a simple reason: They were solutions in search of a problem.

Now imagine if their creators had spent more time trying to understand the problem their customers faced. Imagine they had actually tried to identify a real challenge and properly define how it could be addressed. The result would have likely been closer to a Tesla or even an iPhone — at the very least, we wouldn’t be talking about them in nearly the same way.

This shows just how important it is to frame a problem before trying to solve it. Let’s go over in detail how you can apply problem framing to your next project.

What is problem framing?

Problem framing is a process for analyzing, understanding, and ultimately defining a problem or challenge in order to develop an effective solution. While it can be done on an individual level, it is typically practiced across teams so that you can achieve alignment and work more cohesively toward an agreed-upon outcome. 

In short, problem framing is an opportunity to take a step back, assess the landscape of your problem and break down its root causes, then focus on a solution that is most likely to lead to the outcome you want.

Why problem framing is critical for better outcomes

Framing the problem is important because it sets the direction and scope of the solution design process, ensuring that efforts are focused on addressing the core issues. It helps avoid wasted time and resources on irrelevant or superficial solutions.

Good design and effective iteration can help improve a product, but they won’t tell you if you’re addressing the right problem — only problem framing can do that. Here are some ways this process can ensure your solution achieves better results:

  • It provides clarity. Whether your team isn’t sure what problem they’re facing or can’t reach an agreement, taking the time to break the problem apart can ensure everyone understands it. And that is crucial to developing a solution that actually works.
  • It narrows the scope. With a better understanding of the problem, you can eliminate everything but the most essential aspects that need to be addressed. That means only addressing underlying issues instead of just their symptoms.
  • It achieves alignment. By having a clear definition in hand, you can ensure that all team members and stakeholders share a common understanding of the problem and how to address it. This will help reduce misunderstandings and conflict.
  • It increases efficiency. While some may think problem framing is an extra step, it can actually help keep you from wasting resources and time by preventing you from focusing on irrelevant or ineffective solutions.

How to frame a problem

Whether you think you have a good idea of your problem or have no clue where to begin, learning how to properly frame it can give you new insights into how to solve it. Here’s a process for doing just that.

Create a problem statement

A good first step is to make sure that everyone can agree on what exactly the problem is. This is a great opportunity to write out a problem statement, or a clear and concise explanation of the problem or challenge you intend to solve.

The goal behind writing a problem statement is to describe the problem as comprehensively as possible, while also spurring your team into action. If your team can’t even reach an agreement on what the problem is, then try to discuss the problem from multiple angles to ensure you’re incorporating multiple perspectives. This will help you achieve alignment. 

Even when everyone already has a good idea of the problem, this step can still help ensure complete clarity by taking the simple but effective step of making your team write it down. Learn more about what goes into creating a good problem statement in our full guide.

Identify and understand the problem's root cause

Although identifying your problem’s root cause or causes should be a part of writing out your problem statement, it’s important enough to deserve a discussion on its own. After all, if you are just focusing on the symptoms of your problem, then any solution you develop will ultimately fail.

The key to uncovering a problem’s root cause is to ask why it is happening, rather than what. Typically, there will be multiple answers to this. One way to start organizing and categorizing these different causes and their various effects is by using a fishbone diagram. Start out by writing down your problem, then come up with different categories that could be contributing to it. From there, start brainstorming different causes.

The Fishbone Diagram template by Mural helps teams visualize multiple potential causes of a problem.

Once you have everything laid out cleanly, you can vote on what you think are the most significant contributors — or, if necessary, even rethink the problem itself.

Empathize with the end-users of the problem

Once you have a good idea of your problem and can articulate it, you also need to ensure that this is a problem your stakeholders face. That means being able to properly understand and empathize with their needs.

To accomplish this, consider organizing an empathy mapping session. Start out by gathering a diverse range of stakeholders in order to reduce biases and leverage different perspectives. Ask them to share their opinion regarding the product, service, or situation, encouraging open-ended responses. As you gather this feedback, divide it into four different categories: thoughts, feelings, actions, and observations —then start looking for areas of improvement. This is where your highest priority problems will be.

The act of interviewing your stakeholders, writing down their responses, and organizing them across different categories should give you a much deeper understanding of the user’s point of view and their needs. 

Frame the problem to brainstorm solutions

With your user research in hand and your problem statement honed, it’s time to start framing the problem in order to come up with effective solutions.

During this process, your goal should be to get your team to rethink the problem in creative ways to help you find new ways to solve it. While there are many ways to do this, the Mural problem framing template provides a simple three-step procedure that can help you explore your challenge in new ways to get the right answer. Each person must transform the problem into four different questions that invite deeper, more nuanced thinking. These questions are then discussed, voted on, and narrowed down to the most promising, providing you with a clear frame for future work.

Use the Problem Framing template to transform problems into compelling questions.

Tips to effectively frame the problem

Thinking through problems in new ways and effectively framing them involves outside-the-box creativity, a healthy dose of empathy, and a willingness to take risks. This can be intimidating for some people. So here are some quick tips to help make this process more effective.

Start with asynchronous collaboration

Focused sessions are the most effective sessions — and what you probably want to focus on the most while problem framing is coming up with possible solutions. That’s why encouraging stakeholders, end-users, and other participants to start collaborating asynchronously on ways to reframe and rethink your problem can be so beneficial. 

Plus, getting participants to work on their own can help avoid groupthink, or the tendency to come up with ideas people will agree with rather than ideas that are actually useful. This will ultimately lead to better decisions and more effective solutions.

In-person sessions aren’t the only way to collaborate!  Learn how async collaboration can solve your meeting problem.

Map out the context of the problem

Helping your team understand the drivers and impacts of the issue you are trying to solve will help them gain a more nuanced view on why this issue exists, as well as how best to solve it. This is why bringing in end users and empathizing with their needs is so important — but there’s no reason you have to stop there. By creating a customer journey map, you can identify vital pain points in the customer experience, locate areas for improvement, and create solutions that are personalized to the customer.

Mural offers several customer journey templates to get you started. For instance, our map template lets you break down the journey across five separate components for a more granular view, while our experience diagramming template is great for examining individual customer’s experiences. 

Don't be afraid to dig deeper with stakeholders and the end-users

Fully understanding an issue and how it affects your stakeholders can take time. For some, this can be frustrating. After all, your objective is to come up with a solution, which will likely require a fair amount of design and iteration itself. 

Try to resist the urge to jump ahead. Instead, embrace the problem-framing process as much as possible by digging in deep with your stakeholders and end users. Really try to explore and understand why their problem exists in the first place so you can find a better potential solution.

Even if all this takes extra time, just remember that it’s better to properly identify and understand the problem you aim to solve rather than solving the wrong problem.

Hold a vote to prioritize solutions

If you’re fortunate, you’ll come to the end of your problem framing session with a wealth of possible solutions to choose from. But this can also be overwhelming. Which is the best course of action? How should you decide?

When faced with these questions, you could try creating a prioritization matrix. This simple tool allows you to quickly identify and weigh the most important factors when making a decision. These could include factors like risk, costs, benefits, and stakeholder interests. You can then place them on a matrix according to the criteria of your choosing, such as potential difficulty and potential impact.

Once you’ve narrowed down your solutions, you could hold a vote to further prioritize what you’ll work on next. Lucky for you, Mural comes with a built-in voting feature that makes this easy.

Hold better problem-framing sessions

Often used in the design thinking process, problem framing is an essential step for understanding the issues you need to solve and uncovering creative new solutions for addressing them. And it doesn’t have to be limited to the beginning of projects. As your projects change and evolve, problem framing can be a useful process for realigning your team and making sure they are staying focused on what matters most.

But you’re not doing it on your own. With its array of tools, templates, and features, the Mural platform is designed to help you at every step of the process: from the first sticky note, to the project’s last step in execution. 

Start designing with digital whiteboard platform or go ahead and dive into our library of templates. And don’t forget to let us know what you come up with!

Looking to level-up client engagements? Learn how to make client collaboration more engaging and personalized with this cheat-sheet.

Frequently asked questions on problem framing

What is the main focus of problem framing?

The main focus of problem framing is to define the problem accurately, understand its underlying causes, and identify its broader implications. It aims to provide a clear and comprehensive view of the problem, enabling teams to develop targeted and effective solutions.

What is the difference between problem statements and problem framing?

Problem statements simply state the issue at hand, while problem framing goes a step further by providing context, boundaries, and a deeper understanding of the problem's root causes and impact.

What are the main benefits of problem framing?

The benefits of problem framing include clear direction for the project, targeted and impactful solutions, user-centric design, fostering innovation and creativity, and improved problem-solving and decision-making. It ensures that organizations solve the right problems and achieve more successful outcomes.

About the authors

About the authors

David Young

David Young

Contributing Writer
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.

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