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Ways to Improve Your Business with Problem Identification

This title may seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many people fail to do this before starting their projects. Any time you introduce a new solution to your company, it is important to take a look at the bigger picture and evaluate whether or not this solution has broader applications than you originally thought. I know what you are thinking, “SCOPE CREEP!” Read on. I think you will get a better appreciation for this approach.

Problem Identification is the first step in the User-Centric Design Process.

  1. Discover
    • Problem Identification
    • User Behavior
    • Competitive Analysis
    • Requirements or Constraints
    • Product Goals
    • Measurements of Success
    • User Research
  2. Develop
    • Customer Journey Map / User Stories
    • Information Architecture
    • Content Strategy
    • Identify MVP
    • Mockups and Wireframes
    • Visual Design
  3. Feedback
    • Testing
    • Analytics
    • User Feedback
    • New Requests

Digital By Default

Digital is the ideal workspace for solving your problems. It’s fairly inexpensive, it’s becoming increasingly easy to measure your results, and adjusting your product is fast. One of the best ways to look at your problem is by taking “digital by default” approach. In his book, Digital Adaptation, Paul Boag defined “digital by default” this way:

“To be digital by default is to be digital first. In other words, you turn first to digital as a way of delivering your products, services, customer support, marketing messages, or any other function of the business. Digital might not always be the appropriate solution to these problems, but a business adapted to the digital economy will look first at whether there is a digital solution to a business challenge or opportunity, before looking elsewhere.”

Excerpt From: Digital Adaptation by Paul Boag.

Think Outside the Box!

You are implementing a digital solution that could have multiple applications or address some of the core problems your company is facing. It is much easier to plan for these solutions from the start rather than try to retrofit a solution in later. Development often works in stages or sprints. Being aware of business challenges may influence the product’s overall design and will help you build an effective roadmap for future development. Having all of the problems our on the table before you will also allow you to group related issues and make meaningful connections.

An excellent example of this is the company’s website. It is often thought of as a “marketing tool” and, consciously or subconsciously, it is designated for marketing purposes only. Your digital tools are business tools. Now, some departments may have ownership of said tool, but it is important to broaden your scope of the capabilities these tools have to solve the challenges of other facets of the business.

Netflix has exemplified this with its tech blog. Not only is it used to communicate about its great development projects, but it is also leveraged as a recruitment tool. At the end of this article about designing for multiple languages, the call to action is an offer to come work with them on the project discussed in the article. Netflix has identified one of its problems as employing and retaining talented developers and is using a non-traditional approach to recruiting.

Problem Finding, Not Solution Finding

When I originally started developing this process, I limited the problem identification portion to the product itself. By doing this, I quickly realized how limited the feedback was. Most of the responses revolved around the technology or that the product needed a specific feature. Often times, people came to the table with solutions rather than problems. This limited our ability to brainstorm about problems and actually find the best solution.

**Note – The Problem Identification brainstorming session is not an opportunity for stakeholders to share their wish lists for the new product. The key is to focus on business problems.

Find the Core Problem and You’ll See Many Solutions

Once you start looking at things from a problem perspective rather than from a solution perspective, it can be a bit frustrating when you see others not doing the same. Imagine you are in a workshop working to identify problems when a sales rep said they needed a mobile app that would mirror our website’s content and features. After some digging, it was discovered that many of their customer’s employees work exclusively on mobile devices and that the current website was difficult to read and required an unfortunate amount of zooming in and out to access the content and features. The current site was not mobile-friendly, so naturally, the sales rep, being unaware of other solutions, sought to fix the problem the best way they knew how. This is common and there is nothing wrong with that. However, now that core problem has been identified, a number of possible solutions are available to us – the site can be responsive or adaptive, they can have a mobile-only site, they can have a progressive web application, they can have a mobile app, etc. Identifying the core problem allows you to see many potential ways to address the problem rather than from a single solution.

An excellent tool for working backwards from a solution to find the root problem is the “5 Whys” approach. It can be difficult to know what the root problem is right away and it will take some work to vet it out.

What Keeps You Up At Night?

One of the most popular prompts for starting out this process is to ask, “What are the problems that keep you up at night?” This may sound a little extreme, but when most people hear this question, they chuckle a little and will know exactly what you are talking about. You know your business. You know what challenges you are facing. The key is to make sure everyone else is aware of the challenges so that it gets captured in the process and you can collaborate to solve them.

Address User Feedback

The items at the top of your problem priority list should be your user’s feedback. This is one of the easiest ways to get a win and gain trust. If users feel their voice is being heard, they will begin to feel ownership of the brand. This will inspire them to build and share it with others. This also ensures that you are building products users want. Now, the ideas customers are providing may not be the solution you come up with to solve the core problem, but it’s great because you now have insight into the way your customers think. Capture the user’s request so you can identify the critical pain points in your product. Jeff Gothelf, the author of Lean UX, said it nicely.

“Avoid spending too much effort on providing a feature which is either not requested by many users or doesn’t add much value.”

-Jeff Gothelf author of Lean UX

When soliciting feedback from users, it is good to get specific feedback about the product and features, but it is also incredibly important to get information about their experiences with the company or brand overall. Similar to what was mentioned above, if your questions are limited, the responses will also be limited. A user can rave about your mobile app, but if your return policy is awful, you may be losing customers and be painfully unaware of why it is happening.

Jeff Gothelf - Features

Cultivating Features

This is where things get exciting. At this point, you can rule out the problems that are outside the scope of this project. Now that you have a list of problems you want to tackle for this project, everyone will have a plethora of solutions they will be brimming to share.  It is very important to be methodical about how you channel this pent-up burst of creativity. If you are not, you will end up with a feature list a mile long. Some of them will be trivial, edge-case, or “what if” ideas that you most likely want to avoid.

Create Constraints

In order to minimize the endless stream of ideas that can be generated, address each problem with a time constraint and a limit on the number of ideas they can have for each problem. This approach will force participants to focus on the features they are truly passionate about and believe have a high probability of getting implemented. In short, constraints force them to give you their highest quality ideas.

A very clever way to approach this is with the 4x4x4 activity described in this article. In addition to using constraints on time and ideas, you also use groups to reduce the final number of features.

What to do With Your Features

Once you have your list of features, you are not done with them yet. As you move through the other steps in the User-Centric Design Process you may find that you may have missed something or a feature is not as important as you thought it was. Your feature list will be revisited when determining your MVP.


This step can be one of the most liberating activities in the process. Once you have exposed your problems, identified their core, and proposed possible solutions, they can seem so much more manageable. Identifying what is holding you back from being efficient enables you to strategically address those problems.