What do design processes have in common – Problem space, solution space, and design processes

There are many research frameworks and design processes, and new ones come up everyday. This post traces a common thread of problem and solution space across various design processes (and research frameworks).
Connecting the dots. Doodle by author.

Plants need water, some need a glass of water every day and others need some water every two weeks, but most of them need water. Also, generally speaking, plant leaves make food, and their roots take up nutrients and water from the soil. Knowing that these aspects are common across wildly different plants helps us understand them better, and care better for them.
And today I will try to find such common ground across design processes (and research frameworks). There are many research frameworks and design processes, and new ones come up every day. They all might have a slightly different focus but I believe there’s a common thread. And today’s article is about tracing this thread across different research and design frameworks and processes.
I want to start with words from Indi Young,

Problem space research is something you do once a year or so. The data lasts for decades. The resulting opportunity map, thinking styles, and metrics influence every cycle of the solution space.

This articulation: “Problem space” and “Solution space” became mainstream with the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, and this will be the common ground we will use to walk across different processes.

In the problem space, we discover and define the problems we want to solve. And in the solution space, we discover and design solutions to address those problems. The former is also often referred to as “Designing the right thing” and the latter as “Designing the thing right”. “Early discovery” is also a term I often hear when referring to problem space.

Just a note, this is a reference-heavy article, so you might want to save/bookmark this one as it refers to different design processes.

Problem vs. solution space across design and research

So, let’s spot where this problem/solution shows up for three different frameworks and processes. There are three main reasons I think it can be helpful:

  • The first point is to highlight that the problem and solution space are separate and each of them needs attention, regardless of which process you follow. It can also help you place where most of your work activities lie. Though problem space research happens less often, it feeds a lot of the solution space research and design.
  •  Secondly, finding a common ground across processes can help you anchor yourself in any new design or research process by using this problem space vs. solution space articulation.
  •  Finally, this article is just to give you a glimpse of the landscape of design and research processes, and revealing commonalities across them hopefully makes them seem less complicated and overwhelming (let me know in case of questions).

The Double Diamond process 

The Design Council UK defined the Double Diamond process with four stages: Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver.

The Double Diamond process (graphic credit: Design Council 2019).

In the first diamond, to discover the problem, you diverge or search wide in the problem space before you “converge” and define which problem to solve.

Then in the second diamond, you first diverge or search wide for solutions to the problem (prototype and develop) and then converge on a solution, design, and fine-tune it, and finally deliver it.

In this process, the first diamond is about the problem space and the second diamond is about the solution space. What I especially like is that they highlight the importance of diverging before converging. That is, always consider multiple options before converging on one – while framing the problems we well as the solutions. You can read more about the process here.

The Design thinking process 

Another often talked process is the design thinking process. It has five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test.

The Design Thinking process (Graphic credit: Interaction Design Foundation).

In design thinking, the first two phases: Empathize and Define relate to the problem space, and the last three phases Ideate, Prototype, Test relate to the solution space.

I like that the Design Thinking approach emphasizes “Define”, that is, defining or framing the problem. Though Ideo brought this process to the mainstream, here’s an interesting post with the history of the design thinking process, and here are the details of the design thinking stages by Interaction Design Foundation.

 The Human-centered design process 

Then there’s the Human-centered design process defined by the ISO 9241 -210 standard which was known as the User-Centered Design (UCD) process earlier.

The steps in this process are: Specify context of use, Specify Requirements, Design solutions and develop, Evaluate the product.

 The Human-centered design process (Graphic credit: Interaction Design Foundation).

This process seems to begin after the problem has been defined, and when you know what problems you are trying to address. So it mainly seems to deal with the solution space.

UCD emphasizes researching the context of use and translating the findings of your research explicitly into requirements. For complex domains and systems with longer design and development cycles, this traceability across stages is essential.

In case you want to read more on UCD, here’s the wiki , here’s an article on Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) and you can access the ISO standard here. The above photo comes from IDF too.

Research frameworks

Research, design, and development are inseparable, so it makes sense to refer to the research framework article from a few weeks ago. We looked at the different research frameworks, specifically, the Ncredible research framework, where the Discover and Explore/elaborate quadrants focus on the problem space research while the Design or Validation quadrants focus on the solution space.

Here’s the article from a few weeks ago, take a look to see a reference to more research frameworks and the questions that you answer with different types of research.

In conclusion, across the landscape of design and user research processes, there are commonalities. I looked at it from a problem/solution perspective, here’s another article that compares the different design processes for general differences/commonalities.

This was it from my side. Is there a process you work with often?

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