Problem definition

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What Is a Problem Definition?

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What is a problem? What does a problem definition consist of, and how do goals and objectives fit in? A problem always has to do with dissatisfaction about a certain situation. However, satisfaction is a relative concept, so problems are also of a relative nature. A big problem for one person may not be a problem at all for someone else.

An expected situation in the future does not have to be accepted. You can try to do something about it, by acting now. For defining a problem this implies that it is not sufficient to describe the existing state. Therefore, we speak consciously of the situation that someone is or is not satisfied with. As a result, a description of the situation is a description of a state plus the relevant causal model(s), including the assumed patterns of behaviour of the people and organisations involved. A situation is only a problem if the problem-owner wants to do something about it. This implies that a situation must be conceivable that is more desirable than the present one: the goal situation. The existing situation, however, can also be formulated in such a manner that a problem does arise.

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What is the problem?

  • The problem is that in the opinion of the company Fun-Play BV their target market is too small.
  • The company wants to expand their target market by developing a toy that can be used on water.
  • The toy must be able to be moved in and on water.
  • The product needs to have a driving mechanism and a transportation system that the user eventually could use to get acquainted with the technical aspect of the system. A potential problem is that the product is supposed to attract a target group from 7 - 11 years. Therefore the design should communicate to this target group.

Who has the problem?

The main problem is that the company Fun-Play BV thinks that their target market is too limited. The company wants to expand into the European market. In order to do that, bigger product sales need to be achieved. Therefore the numbers of products need to be increased by creating a new series of toys.

What are the goals?

The goal is to design a product that is suitable for kids between 7 - 11 years and addresses a certain play activity of this group. Next to that the product needs to move in or through water with help of a driving mechanism or other transportation system. Furthermore the product needs to be suitable for competition or game element.

What are the avoidable side effects?

Some effects that are created by this product have to be avoided. Next to pollution that the production causes, effects of the user have to be taken into account, such as noise created by the users. Also the space that the product will occupy in public spaces, which in turn can create problems by not leaving enough space for i.e. storage.

Which ways of action are available in the beginning?

There are a number of conditions that need to be agreed on before solving the problem. For this product only the following materials can be used: metal, wood and plastics. The deadline needs to be met in 14 weeks.

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When Can You Use a Problem Definition?

A problem definition is usually set up at the end of the problem analysis phase.

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How to Use a Problem Definition?

Starting Point

The starting point of a problem definition is the information gathered in the problem analysis stage. The different aspects surrounding the design problem have been analysed and should be taken into account in the problem definition.

Expected Outcome

A structured description of the design problem, with the goal of creating an explicit statement on the problem and possibly the direction of idea generation. Also, a problem definition clearly written down provides a shared understanding of the problem and its relevant aspects.

Possible Procedure

Answering the following questions will help to create a problem definition:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Who has the problem?
  3. What are the goals?
  4. What are the side-effects to be avoided?
  5. Which actions are admissible?

Tips and Concerns

  • When analysing problems there is always a tension between the ‘current situation’ and the ‘desired situation’. By explicitly mentioning these different situations you are able to discuss the relevance of it with other people involved in your project.
  • Make a hierarchy of problems; start with a big one and by thinking of causes and effects, divide this problem into smaller ones. Use post-its to make a problem tree.
  • A problem can also be reformulated in an opportunity or ‘driver’. Doing this will help you to become active and inspired.

References and Further Reading

  • Roozenburg, N.F.M. and Eekels, J. (1995) Product Design: Fundamentals and Methods, Utrecht: Lemma.
  • Roozenburg, N. and Eekels, J. (1998, 2nd ed.) Product Ontwerpen: Structuur en Methoden, Utrecht: Lemma.


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