Reframe the Problem


Many people would agree that a good designer is a good problem solver. One thing I want to add is: a good designer should be a good problem definer first. We all know that, in some cases, the problem that the clients perceived are not the real problems they have. However, even though the designer work with the clients to identify the real problem through research, the problem identified needs to be reframed to be the design problem: a meaningful and actionable problem statement that points out the design opportunities based on the pain point of the target user. I will take my Capstone project in CMU as an example to explain what is the difference between the problem and the design problem, and how to come up with the design problem.

Over this summer, my team is expected to provide our client: Western Governor University(WGU), with the design solution to help WGU students improve their learning to learn skills. Based on our research findings in the past spring semester, we found that while WGU students, in general, are self-confident about their learning to learn skills, many of them needs more scaffoldings on how to learn more efficiently and effectively since many WGU student have to take care of their work, study and family at the same time. The finding is not the problem. We need to find out what factors on earth that erode students’ learning effectiveness.

The first thing we looked at is data (because we study in CMU). WGU has been using DAACS assessment, a diagnostic assessment designed to help students transite to college, to assess students’ level of learning skills. The data we got from WGU contains assessment score of 1711 students, which covers 15 skills related to students’ learning grit, strategies, motivation and metacognition. Based on our data analysis, we found that:

  1. WGU students have lower performance on the skills of grit, motivation and metacognition.

  2. Planning, monitoring, evaluation and managing time are four skills needs to be improved.

  3. Managing time, motivation, help seeking, planning are significant predictors of WGU students’ grit.

Now, we get a deeper understanding of the existing levels of WGU student learning to learn skills. But where is the design space based on these findings? We came back to the DACCS assessment framework to look at the definition of each skill, the survey questions mapped with each skill, and the relations among the identified need-to-be-improved skills, and then brainstormed what skills we should focus on. We decided to focus on planning and self-evaluation skills. So, is “improve students’ planning and self-reflection skills” our design problem? No. It is our goal, but not the design problem that can inform our design solution. We think about one question: How and why WGU students would suffer if they lack of effective planning and self-reflection skills?

After another round user interviews, we found that almost all of the WGU students want to accelerate their learning to get the degree as soon as possible. However, they have difficulty to implement their study plan due to their busy schedule of work and life, which make them constantly on and off the track. Since they care about their study pace, they rarely get a chance to self-reflect on if their current learning strategies are helpful or not. The unawareness of the learning strategies self-evaluation prevents them from improving their learning strategies based on their need and progress. Combining the findings from the data analysis and the user interview, we finally have our design problem statement:

“WGU students don’t see the value of effective planning and self-reflection in their learning while they expect to accelerate their learning to get the degree as soon as possible.”

We think this is a right design problem because:

  • It illustrates the target user’s pain point: students need to utilize effective learning skills to accelerate their learning otherwise they may miss their goal: get the degree as soon as possible. The design should assist students achieve their goal.

  • It clearly identified the design space: planning and self-evaluation skills. The solution should be able to improve these two skills.

  • It reminds us to keep in mind that the target users’ want to learn these two skills to accelerate their learning. Our design should always taps on students’ motivation.

This is an example of how to reframe the problem into a actionable design problem. This design problem statement has guided us to find our design solution.


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