Problem Framing

Explore a problem space and formulate a problem statement so you know what you're solving for.


Define the problem you're solving, the impact for customers, and the contexts in which it happens. 

If you're struggling with value metrics or shared understanding on your Health Monitor, running this play might help.

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When your team can't seem to agree on the problem your project is tackling, that's a sure sign of impending doom. But here's the thing: it's unlikely that your teammates are going to come right out and say "Hey, I don't agree that we're solving that problem!"

Instead, you'll probably notice that you're having the same discussions (and *ahem* arguments) over and over again. Or find team members advocating wildly different solutions – so different, in fact, that the solutions don't even seem to map to the same problem. That's when you know it's time to run the Problem Framing play.

Take 30 minutes to explore your problem space through the eyes of your customer so you can make decisions and understand the reasons behind them. This is a great supplement to the Project Poster and Experience Canvas plays, too.

Frame the problem and form a problem statement to guide your project.
User Team

1 - 10

Measure Clock

30 min

Difficulty Easy


Running the play

This is a great play for large-ish groups with diverse skills and experience levels. More perspectives = better problem definition.


Whiteboard or butcher's paper

Sticky notes


A3 or letter-sized paper

Blue-tac (optional)


Rubber chicken

Step 1

Set the stage (3 min)

Welcome your team and remind them that you're here to define the problem you're working on – not to brainstorm solutions. Your goal is to walk out with a single (yes: single) problem statement.

Step 2

Draw up a W4 board (2 min)

Divide your whiteboard into four equal spaces, and label them Who, What, Why, and Where. For groups of four or more people, divide into sub-groups, and give each group a piece of paper so they can replicate the W4 board.

Pro Tip

Invite people outside your immediate team so you can get a totally fresh perspective.

Step 3

Talk amongst yourselves (10 min)

Discuss the following questions and use sticky notes to write down your thoughts on each "W":

  • Who - Who actually has this problem? Have you validated that the problem is real? Can you prove it?
  • What - What is the nature of the problem? What research or supporting evidence do you have?
  • Why - Why is the problem worth solving? What's the impact on the customer?
  • Where - Where does this problem arise? Have you/your team observed this problem in its natural habitat?
Step 4

Come back together (10 min)

Ask people (or each group) to stick their best sticky notes on the whiteboard in the corresponding area. 

If you have a lot of material gathered in each of the 4W areas, give everyone a sticky-dot or marker and put one vote on a sticky-note in each "W" to allow the most relevant or significant material to come to the surface. 

As a full group, explore each area and try to reach consensus. Which two points in each area are the most revealing? Are there further questions to research?


 You walk out with multiple problem statements, and promise to unify them later. 

If you can't come to a single statement, you probably need to keep discussing until you agree. It's also possible that you have two legitimately separate problems on your hand, in which case, you need to chose which one your project will solve for.

Step 5

Build the problem statement (5 min)

Now for the grand finale, and yes: this part is kinda hard. Summarize the material you've produced into a single problem statement, one or two sentences long. Make sure it contains questions of Who, What, Why and Where.

For groups larger than four, delegate this task to just a few people. But allow time for them to present back to the entire group so everyone has a chance to endorse it.

Content search
For example...

Here's the problem statement that came out of a session for an internal-facing project at Atlassian.

Nailed it?

Be sure to run a full Health Monitor session or checkpoint with your team to see if you're improving.


Divide, conquer, and vote

If you have a large group, give each small group the opportunity (after the 'come back together' discussion) to write their version of the problem statement onto A3 paper. Each group can then blu-tac their version onto the wall, share with the larger group as a whole, and then discuss to reach consensus on one problem statement.


Now it's time to start exploring solutions (or re-explore them). Run the experience canvas play next – you've already got a jumpstart on the problem, value, and personas areas!

If you're using a project poster, go back and add this to your "Why are we doing this?" section.

Related Plays

   Project Poster

   Experience Canvas

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