By Jon Kolko
The goal of design research is widely claimed to be about empathy building and understanding so we can identify and solve problems. That’s not wrong, but it does ignore one of the most important parts of research as an input for design strategy—research helps produce a problem frame.
Think of a given design activity as a canvas of opportunity. At the beginning, there’s “whitespace.” That’s not to imply that there’s no existing baggage–nearly every single design problem comes with an existing set of interconnections that help shape research—the whitespace is our own, in our head, because we haven’t yet set a boundary for exploration. The first step is during the creation of a research plan.
We recently worked with a customer, building software that would help college students. The customer described an initial design space for the ethnographic research we were doing—attrition and retention of community college students. But within that frame, there were no specifics—the problem was big, broad, and conceptual.
Our research plan became our first problem frame, narrowing the whitespace to understanding how college students think about their degree plans, get help with course selection, and make decisions about graduation. This asserts a fence around a conceptual problem, meaning “Our problem space does not include sports and athletics, dorms, tutoring, payment…” That’s not to say it will never include those elements in the future—it’s likely that students do drop out of school because of things related to tutoring and payments—but for now, we’ve put stakes in the ground around our workspace.
As we conducted research, those stakes moved and tightened, narrowing the problem frame. Our research plan stayed consistent, as we are typically reluctant to change our protocol during field activities. With each participant, we included the same style of questions, the same participatory design exercises, the same screener for student types, and the same overall approach. But our understanding, and our whitespace, started to fill in. Each session with a student began to answer some questions, add more, and create a narrative of higher education, upon which degree decisions are made. We found students making decisions reactively based on time and financial pressures. We saw students receiving incorrect and incomplete information from advisors, and proactive students actually correcting their advisors. We saw students receiving pressure from their parents to complete a degree, and some students receiving pressure from their parents to drop out and get a job to support a lower-income family. And we heard story after story of students going deeper into debt, without a clear pathway towards graduation.
We continued to informally synthesize the research through conversation and reflection, identifying a more refined problem frame. Students don’t know it, but under immense pressure, they make haphazard decisions including course selection and degree planning, which are the elements that have the most lasting, and often negative, repercussions. Our research has led us to a more concise description of opportunity than the original articulation of “attrition.”
We were able to contain the problem with the articulation of a clean and simple value proposition, an assertion of the benefits a student will have if they use our product or service. It’s a promise we make to students: if they use our product or service, they will receive specific value, described in a specific way. This again shrinks the whitespace by solidifying the boundaries.
An assertion: We promise to help college students make more informed decisions about course and degree plan selection, and react with ease when those decisions don’t go as intended. Now, our frame is much more targeted. Our problem space is manageable because we can see its boundaries and constraints, which lead us seamlessly to design criteria.
The overly simplistic processes that are described as part of “design thinking” include a “synthesis” phase, something that’s explicit, with a beginning and an ending. But synthesis or sensemaking happens continually, and as it happens, it changes the way we think about a problem. Each story we heard from students recast our problem frame. We initially excluded conversations of finance, but it became apparent that payment and funding is front and center in the conversation. We didn’t know how degree pathways were presented to students, but as we gathered artifacts, we learned about the hand-made flowcharts, diagrams, and visuals created by both students and advisors to fill in what the university did not provide.
On the surface, these are “problems to be solved”—if we see a gap in the paperwork given to students, we can easily give them a new chart or diagram—but this problem/solution thinking often creates a band aid on something systemic. Our goal is to frame the problem so that we can consider it “in the round” when we begin making solution recommendations.
Initially, a frame is fluid. Over the course of a project, it’s natural and helpful to become more and more firm, because without a foundation, we are at the whim of a decision maker’s changing prerogative, often driven by the noise of the market or culture. And without design criteria emerging from the frame, designers have no way to assess their own work. Their explorations are all equally good or equally bad and so they too are at the whim of an external, louder voice to make decisions. When a problem frame is established, it means a decision has been made, and this is much harder to shift.
One of our biggest creative goals is to build tacit knowledge in a space, and then remain objective enough in our subjective process to avoid an expert blind spot—a genuine cognitive psychology phenomenon that limits an expert from understanding how a novice may approach a problem. This type of blind spot can further entrench the problem frame, making it become concrete, rather than flexible, which means our task as designers and design researchers is learning to hold on to multiple frames at once, for as long as we can.