Product Process: Framing the Problem (Phase 1)

Written by Drew Barontini on February 21, 2023

We can’t shape a solution until we fully understand the problem. Framing answers questions such as:

  • Are we working on the right problem?
  • Do we have enough background information to understand the problem fully?
  • Does the entire team have the same understanding of the problem?

Assumptions will only take you so far, and could put you right back where you started. Framing a problem helps to clarify and narrow down the problem. It also quantifies the opportunity inherent to solving the problem so it can be appropriately prioritized.

What exactly is framing?

Framing is the process of defining and understanding the problem or opportunity that a product / feature / solution is meant to address. It involves:

  • Identifying the key stakeholders and their needs.
  • Identifying any constraints or limitations that may impact the development or success of the product.
  • Research and analysis to understand the current state of the problem or opportunity.
  • Identifying potential solutions to the problem identified.

The outcome of framing should be a clear and concise statement of the problem or opportunity that the product is intended to address. This can guide the development process and inform decision-making throughout the project.

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. - Albert Einstein

Below are the four components that make up Differential’s framing process.

Clarify the problem

The first step in framing is to clarify the problem. This means pulling apart the problem to fully understand all sides of it.

A problem well-put is half-solved. — John Dewey

How to clarify the problem

In order to clarify the problem, spend time asking questions that help understand all the different sides of the problem. Some example questions might include:

  • Who is affected by the current problem?
  • How have those affected articulated the problem they’re experiencing?
  • Why is it a problem?

Narrow the problem down

Next, we need to reduce the surface area of the problem. There may be way more to the problem than we’re ready to address. The smaller the problem area, the easier it will be to shape, test, and iterate.

How to narrow the problem down

In order to narrow the problem down, dig deeper into the identified problem to determine which part is most pressing to resolve. This might include diving deep into the data and metrics to understand which users are affected and the amount of users affected. Tease apart the different sides of the problem to reduce it down as much as possible.

Quantify the opportunity

Quantifying the opportunity is all about understanding the impact that solving the problem will have on the business. If we solve this problem, what will happen? And, conversely, if we don’t solve this problem, what will happen? Doing this exercise allows us to understand and measure the impact, which will ultimately help us prioritize the work to be done.

How to quantify the opportunity

In order to quantify the opportunity, continue forward from the work of narrowing the problem down to identify the cost of resolving (or not resolving) the opportunity. Use data, metrics, and stakeholder knowledge to quantify the value and impact that the opportunity represents. If you’re tracking key metrics or “key performance indicators” (KPIs), then you have numbers to validate against.

  • How would solving this problem move the numbers?
  • Does solving the problem measurable impact the KPIs?
  • If so, by how much?
  • What is the cost of not solving the problem?

Output: Well-defined problem

The output of framing is a well-defined problem that we can clearly articulate in order to shape a solution against solving that problem.