Chapter 02: Define

Chapter 02: Define

In this chapter:

The define mode involves organizing your research, observations, and insights to scope a meaningful design challenge. It involves sorting and condensing thoughts until you’ve found a compelling point of view and clear direction for ideation.

Getting Focused

The define step in the design thinking process is usually seen as a “narrowing” activity.  After collecting volumes of user information at the empathy stage, it is time to distill down to one specific user group and their needs. Narrowing the focus is important, because as you gain a clearer understanding of what your observations mean, you can use them as inspiration to solve your challenge.


Sometimes the define phase is described as a “sensemaking” process, as innovators work to determine the fundamental issues underlying a design challenge. Doing the hard work at the outset to define the core questions you’re seeking to answer, and make sense of the user needs you’re trying to meet, helps save resources such as money, materials, time, and motivation, explains Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in Harvard Business Review.[1]

In the define stage, you will convert early insights into actionable ideas through the following activities:

  • Capturing Learnings. Learnings are the recollections of what stood out during a conversation or observation: direct quotes, anecdotes, notes on sounds, smells, textures, colours, etc.
  • Identifying Themes. Themes are created after you have organized your observations from field research into categories. They are the headlines for clusters of similar learnings.
  • Distilling Insights. Insights are a succinct expression of what you have learned from your field research activities. They always offer a new perspective, even if they are not new discoveries. They are inspiring and relevant to your challenge.
  • Crafting Messaging. Experiment with the wording and structure to best communicate your insights. Create short and memorable sentences that get to the point. Share your message with an outsider to check whether they need more refining.

Spending time at the front end of the innovation process to explore the challenge, the users, and the context of use can pay big dividends in producing more effective solutions down the road. As you work through a design challenge your perspectives on the problem, the users, and the ideal solution, will evolve and change. The most interesting and innovative solutions will come from gaps in systems of use, usability and meaning.

A common pitfall for innovators is to be directly drawn to specific solution ideas. The focus at the define stage of the design thinking process is still on the user’s problems and needs (not the innovator’s ideas and solutions). The right design challenge is always user-centered, writes Phil Morle, who suggests, “ask yourself, you solving a problem or a real pain point for a specific group of customers that you can articulate?”[2]

Problem Finding and Scoping

“In real-world practice, problems do not present themselves as givens. They must be constructed from the materials of problematic situations which are puzzling, troubling, and uncertain.”- Idris Mootee[3]

Define the design challenge you’re facing.

In this stage of the design thinking process, you will work hard to identify and focus on the problem you strive to address and/or the challenge you are seeking to solve.  A clearly defined design challenge will guide your questions and help you stay on track throughout the innovation process. Write a short brief that clarifies the challenge you plan to address. Write it as if you were handing it to someone else to design with. Capture your thoughts on why this is a problem, and what the opportunity for a design innovation will be.

Reframe the challenge.

In order to be truly generative, you must reframe your challenge or problem into an opportunity for innovation. You can do this by rewriting the problem statement beginning with “how might we?” questions.

Examples of “How might we?” Questions

● How might we engage residents in a new community recycling program?
● How might we create a space to support collaborative healthcare research?
● How might we develop tools that help new moms find daycare close to home?
● How might we redesign gyms to encourage users to try strength training?

Framing the right “how might we” question to address your challenge is essential. The questions should be broad enough to allow for unexpected possibilities but narrow enough to let you focus. Asking “how might we” poses the design problem within a frame of possibility. ”Mastering the ability to reframe problems is an important tool for increasing your imagination because it unlocks a vast array of solutions,” writes Tina Seelig.[4]

Keep it simple.

Describe your challenge simply and optimistically. Make it broad enough to allow you to discover areas of unexpected value, and narrow enough to make the topic manageable.

Sketch out your end goals.

What would an optimal solution look like? Define your goals for undertaking this design challenge. Be honest about determining a realistic scope of your project both regarding time and output. What will you work to produce? Where do you expect to get at the end of this innovation process?

Define your measures of success.

What else are you working toward? What will make this work successful? What are the measures of success? Examples include number of people who sign up for your program, number of positive reviews, number of new clients, increased user engagement, etc. Most of the time, these measures of success emerge as your project develops, but it helps to start to think about metrics of success such as this at the onset.


Suggested Deliverables for the Define Stage:

You may want to visualize your research and design work using the following graphic organizers:

  • SWOT diagram (focus on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats)
  • Flow chart
  • PEST diagram (focus on political, economic, social and technological factors)
  • Affinity mapping

Final Thoughts

To sum up, in this chapter we’ve covered activities related to the define mode, which are designed to expose new innovation opportunities by inspiring you to look at problems differently.

When you define a problem or challenge, you’re imposing a logical, visual and texturally coherent organizational structure around all the data you have collected-a frame. And of course, doing so makes it much easier to communicate both the challenge and your proposed solution to other people, which helps to get everyone on the same page and to build a shared understanding of obstacles, goals, and the overall purpose of the innovation project.


Attributions: material from the following open source texts was adapted and integrated into this chapter

“Design Thinking for Educators” IDEO. Circa 2013. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

“Collective Action Toolkit” Frog Design. Circa 2016. CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Design Thinking for 11th Graders” Bridget McGraw. Circa 2016. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

“Design Thinking Bootleg” by The D.School. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 4.0 INTERNATIONAL

  1. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg cited by Dwayne Spradlin in "Are You Solving the Right Problem?" Harvard Business Review. 2012.
  2. Phil Morle. "Startup Focus" 2012. The Messenger Group
  3. Idris Mootee. "Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can't Teach You at Business or Design School" 2013. John Wiley & Sons
  4. Tina Seelig. "InGenius: A crash course on creativity" 2012. Hay House


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