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How to Ensure a Well-Established Problem Definition

Engineers can be eager to jump into designing solutions. However, proceeding without a real sense of the problem is like working toward a moving target. Teams can spend months, or even years, developing a product that doesn’t solve a problem, and therefore, no one wants to buy.

Shaher Ahmad, founder of 4S Med-Device Consulting, said that a clear problem definition is essential to determine the requirements that lead to successful product development.

“When people ditch the problem definition for the sake of the solution, that’s where the bigger problem really starts,” he said.

For example, Ahmad recalls getting emails and calls from doctors offering a “great solution.” He always replied by asking about the problem they’re trying to fix. Another example is the stereotype of a man trying to appease his wife while making the situation worse because he doesn’t fully understand why she’s upset.

“Not having a clear sense of the problem can send you completely in the opposite direction,” he said. “It’s about listening and observing with a sense of empathy to understand the situation versus jumping in immediately to try to fix it.”


Take time to understand the problem

The first step in understanding a problem is taking the time to put yourself in the user’s shoes, Ahmad said. A more technical term for this approach is empathic design, a user-centered design approach that pays attention to the user’s feelings, attitudes and practices related to the problem. Empathic design relies on observing users in their environment.

This approach pushes product development teams to follow the user journey to gain a sense of the true problem they’re trying to fix. Rather than emphasizing the technology and solution, empathic design helps teams get to the essence of a problem.

“Sometimes these problems don’t come out screaming, ‘Here I am,’ so you have to be willing to put the time in, be patient and not run to a solution right away,” Ahmad said.

Companies that are eager to get the job done and hesitant to spend money on additional research can find this type of problem-solving difficult. However, Ahmad doesn’t agree with calling this portion of product development research because it gives the impression that there’s no end in sight. Instead, he views it as applied research with a particular purpose, which should be to develop a clear problem definition to solve it effectively.

He references a quote from Albert Einstein. “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

“There’s a lot of wisdom in that,” Ahmad said. “The more you know about the problem, the better you will be at fixing it.”

Ahmad has seen the effectiveness of training engineering teams on empathic techniques and sending them out to discover real-world problems. “They’ve come back with really good solutions because they truly understand what the problem is,” he said.

Look at the problem from different angles

Fixing one aspect of a problem isn’t completing the job. Instead, holistically looking at the problem can help inform teams of other consequences to address.

Ahmad uses the example of a broken bone. The fractured bone is the problem, and aspects like pain, limited mobility and impacts on long-term growth are symptoms. The goal is not only to fix the bone, but also provide a solution that will alleviate having to worry about symptoms later.

Empathic design seeks to identify these “symptoms” or latent customer needs to create products that the customers don’t even know they desire or have difficulty envisioning.

“Ideally, you want to be with your customers as they’re using a product and observe and look for opportunities for problems they don’t even know about,” he said. “That’s when you get to the level of Steve Jobs; he anticipated problems people didn’t even know they had.”

Determine the ideal outcome

While there may be various ways to fix the problem, Ahmad said it’s also essential to determine the ideal outcome or scenario.

“When someone wants to get to the other side of the river, you can provide them with a submarine because that will get them to the other side, for sure,” he says. “But that’s really not what they’re asking for; maybe a raft would be just fine.”

One way to determine what the ideal outcome looks like is to ask the end-user or those involved what life would be like if that problem didn’t exist. This can help frame your approach so that you’re not over or undershooting the solution.


Understanding the problem enables teams to proceed confidently with a clear project definition. From there, Ahmad said to consider whether the problem is worth fixing. Part of this is looking at the financial impact. For example, if you’re trying to reduce wait times for patients in hospitals, what is the financial burden of long wait times? That may mean looking at longer hours for staff, fewer patients seen or poor hospital reputation, all of which bring in less revenue for the hospital.

This financial burden also becomes part of the problem definition. Once you have this piece, Ahmad advises putting the problem definition in writing so everyone can see it and understand the associated financials.

“Conceptual development can happen as soon as you have a problem that’s well-defined,” he said. “Managing the fuzzy front end with a clear problem definition will allow teams to be more successful in providing innovative and effective solutions.”

Kathie Zipp is an ORTHOWORLD Contributor. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is Founder of 4S Med-Device Consulting.