New Haircut Q&A: Problem Framing

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As a designer, it is integral to be a part of the design community. New methods and changes to the traditional design thinking process are often introduced in eye-opening conversations. Recently, I attended a Q&A hosted by Innovation Coach and Design Thinking Facilitator, Jay Melone. Jay Melone is the Founder of New Haircut, an innovation strategy firm that helps organizations unlock their next big idea. The firm helps designing and facilitating critical conversations between team members, stakeholders, and the humans they’re serving.

This most recent Q&A focused around problem framing. As a designer, this is one of the most troublesome stages in the design thinking process. Oftentimes organizations request certain designs and marketing strategies with little to no user or target market research. Because of the lack of research, I encountered problems in the ideation and introduction stages that have led to numerous backtracking. This backtracking often leads to wasted time and recreating the same mistakes. Therefore, Jay Melone’s answers to problem framing questions addressed some of the concerns I have faced both as a UX designer and a Marketing Specialist.

What do you suggest for convincing others that problem framing is important?

I have been lucky enough to work with organizations and individuals who allowed for flexibility design. Therefore, I take it upon myself to complete market analyses and user research. However, Jay’s insights are helpful for future collaborations and projects.

Before problem framing, the New Haircut team was getting into design sprints before being ready for a design sprint and realized that they may not be working on an important problem or the correct problem. The team would need to pause and think to themselves, “What are the possible outcomes form design sprints?” It is important to think about sprint failure such as realizing that you have the wrong stakeholders and/or decision makers in the room. New Haircut instead focused on building on the principles discovered in design spirits and taking those principles outside of the sprints. Taking this approach of separating problem framing from design sprints is an ideal method to ensure problem framing is completed in a day or less in respect of the time of organization’s leaders and others present. That one days can save five days which can eventually save months or years. Problem framing places more focus on the question, “What should people be spending the next 6 months or five months?”

Separating problem framing from the design sprints can lead to push back from stakeholders. Jay shares his experience where organizations approach him already with a prescribed plan of the design sprint in mind. One solution shared is the reframing of problem framing. Whether problem framing is renamed as a session or brainstorm, the result of proactivity approaching user concerns is the same.

What research to you bring to inform the users?

The common question Jay finds is, “what is the starting point?” For a new organization or an organization new to a particular industry, there is a lot of probing in the dark. In comparison, for those already in the industry, they already have information about trends in the industry and competition, and they may already have products or services. In the latter case, do not spend weeks creating a workshop but do make a priority to connect with the necessary people for the design sprints. When reaching out to those people, keep in mind certain questions involving trends and others who should also be a part of the design conversation.

Working with startups and nonprofits, I typically find myself in Jay’s former case where there is little to no research prior to discussing design requests. Therefore, iI find myself “probing in the dark.” Although this can frustrating, the development of proto-personas are a great way to keep design goals in-line with user goals.

When do you perform customer research in problem framing?

I do my best to conduct research as early as possible in the design thinking process, ideally within the empathize and define phases. Jay mentioned similar thoughts but also elaborates on customer research and presentation. He suggests to look at research results and determine what can be pulled out and organized. In some cases, a designer may need to do their best to guess and assume persona’s challenges and even do things like color coding stickies where you do a prototype-persona created with stats, challenges, behaviors, goals. After creating a proto-persona, it is suggested to do additional research. In short, research, like the other phases of the design thinking process is iterative and should be done throughout the design thinking process.

If you do a proto-persona, when do you do an actual persona? When do you do user interviews?

Jay mentions that depending on what you know about the space, it may be more difficult to know who you need to talk to, who the users are, and/or who are the necessary people that need to be involved in the design process. Similar to both my earlier remarks and Jay’s remarks, I try to continue with research throughout my process.

How do you handle detractors who are more powerful than you?

Jay mentions a guy who created a field called structural dynamics where he talked about four archetypes who show up to meetings.

  1. You have the person who facilitates the idea, the leader.

Jay also mentions a lot of handling deflectors is being courageous enough and standing in what you believe. It is also helpful to share personal stories to connect with stakeholders.

Typically, I take on the role of the opposer. Sometimes it is to challenge an idea to make sure the idea holds firm with the removal of certain assumptions. Other times, I take on the role of the opposer for the best interest of the user. This role comes with frustrations, that I am glad Jay addressed in the Q&A.

Overall, problem framing, empathizing and defining have become emphasized stages of the design thinking process. Through my past work, I find that properly addressing these phases early and effectively save a lot of time and resources.

I am a User Experience and User Interface designer with a past life as a pro track and field athlete and author.