There you are, in a meeting with your design team and someone asks "How are we going to do that?!" This is a design challenge, and it happens all the time.

All-too-often what happens next is a haphazard discussion about quick fixes and hair-brained solutions. There's a better way to tackle obstacles when they come up that will get you to a valuable solution.

Understanding the challenge you're facing is critical to the success of your project. By framing the challenge you're facing properly, you can help ensure a better solution. Here are some tips to help you properly frame the challenge you're facing so you can understand how to tackle it and get started on the right foot.

When Considering a Design Challenge, Ask Yourself:

  1. How does overcoming this challenge lead us closer to our business goals?
  2. Does this perspective allow for a variety of solutions
  3. Are we thinking of the challenge in the correct context?

Take some time to answer these questions and refine how you're planning to approach solving the problem at hand. The 5 Whys Analysis is a great tool for this. Essentially, you ask "why?" repeatedly until you discover the root cause of the situation or problem. Here's an example:

Problem: One of the monuments in Washington D.C. is deteriorating.

Why #1 – Why is the monument deteriorating?  

    • Because harsh chemicals are frequently used to clean the monument.

Why #2 – Why are harsh chemicals needed?

    • To clean off the large number of bird droppings on the monument.

Why #3 – Why are there a large number of bird droppings on the monument?

    • Because the large population of spiders in and around the monument are a food source to the local birds

Why #4 – Why is there a large population of spiders in and around the monument?

    • Because vast swarms of insects, on which the spiders feed, are drawn to the monument at dusk.

Why #5 – Why are swarms of insects drawn to the monument at dusk?

    • Because the lighting of the monument in the evening attracts the local insects.

Solution:  Change how the monument is illuminated in the evening to prevent attraction of swarming insects.

Without going through the above exercise, vast resources might be spent rebuilding and preserving the monument, which would have only provided a short-term solution to the problem. By asking the 5 Whys, you can understand the true nature of the challenge you're facing and plan for the right solution.

Next Steps:

  1. Quick First Draft: Write a first draft of your design challenge. Make it short and easy to remember, a single sentence that conveys what you want to do. It's a good idea to phrase it as a question, which sets you and your team up to think about potential solutions and to generate many ideas.
  2. Consider the Context: A properly framed design challenge should push toward maximum impact for the organization, allow for a variety of solutions, and take into account the constraints and context where the challenge exists. Think about these factors and refine the draft you wrote in Step 1 to be more accurate.
  3. The Right Amount of Focus: You also have to be careful about thinking about your challenge in too narrow or too broad of terms. Be sure to scope your challenge in a way that enables focus, without being too restrictive. Too narrow and you won’t have enough room to explore creative solutions. Too broad and you'll struggle with where you should start.
  4. Rinse and Repeat: Now that you’ve considered your challenge from a few angles, do it again. It might feel repetitive, but asking the right question is the key to finding a good solution. Here's a quick test: See if you can come up with five possible solutions in less than 10 minutes. If so, you’re likely on the right track.

Framing your challenges is a critical starting point of any project. You have to make sure you're asking the right questions so you can solve the right problem. Your team, your stakeholders and your budget will thank you. And hey, you might learn something new along the way.