Problem mapping is an exercise in empowerment. It provides us with a way to design solutions and understand how those solutions change the problem, where we need to back-up and take a different route, or who else we need to involve in the problem solving process. This is the first in a three part series exploring how problem mapping can help us unravel complex challenges.
Overlap is a problem solving company. We’ve been refining our approach to innovative design for over 15 years, focusing on creating positive change, and transforming systems, services, and experiences for the better. It’s a lot like detective work, meticulously examining every clue to solve the mystery. It’s deeply human, highly creative, effective, and optimistic. We use problem maps as a powerful tool that makes sense of chaos and complexity by breaking down a problem into manageable pieces.
Understanding Problem Mapping
Imagine yourself in a dense forest with no clear path ahead. The trees obstruct your way, and you’re uncertain about the direction to take. That’s how complex problems can seem—overwhelming and disorienting. By breaking down a problem, we’re able to better understand who is impacted, what those impacts are, and where we can focus our energy to create human-centred solutions. Let’s break this down even further:
Problem mapping consists of three phases: identifying obstacles, crafting problem statements, and exploring symptoms and causes.
Check out the visual prototype of a Problem Map Outline below. Imagine each square is a sticky note with an obstacle or insight from you or your team. In this blog, we’re exploring how identifying obstacles and clarifying narratives (Step 1 and Step 2 below) lays the foundations for better solutions. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to the fun, colourful stuff next!)
Gaining Empathy for People Involved
Empathy serves as the guiding compass for problem mapping. It helps us in comprehending the needs, desires, and pain points of the people directly affected by the problem. We believe that engaging with the individuals directly connected to the problem will enhance our understanding, but the end-user perspective is only one of many. Always seek out other groups or individuals linked to the problem—bringing in diverse perspectives and unpacking a shared understanding of the problem will enrich it even further.
The First Step: Identifying Obstacles and Challenges
When we map components of a complex problem, we start by examining the obstacles in front of us. To reach our destination, it helps to have a list of the hurdles we know we need to overcome. In design, we call this phase “Discovery.” We collect insights, data, and perspectives to gain a deep understanding of the actual problem at hand. We do this by engaging the people affected by the problem, asking them to share their lived experiences and perspectives. At this stage, we want to focus in on the actual obstacles getting in the way of a better future state, not the things we think could go wrong.
Look for Connections: The Stories of the Problem
We find the most effective way to explore these diverse perspectives is to group them based on connections or relationships. Critical thinking and deep discussion is crucial at this stage (we sometimes call this “sensemaking”).We encourage people to envision a collection of ideas as a narrative about the problem. It helps us get beyond merely grouping similar ideas into categories, and see the complexity of the different perspectives at play. We’re not looking to exclude any ideas or viewpoints here! The purpose of connecting perspectives is to paint a full picture of the problem, and increase buy-in from everyone involved.
Speak It into Existence
Or at the very least, write it down. The final step in the initial phase of this process is to give your clusters a name. What story are all of these obstacles telling? This step is important because it creates a moment of consensus and is an act of creativity. You’re combining everyone’s perspectives into something new that didn’t exist before—and it’s often a deeply satisfying moment.
The Power of Problem Mapping
Problem mapping empowers us to view complex challenges in a fresh light. By breaking them down into smaller, manageable components, we find clarity and focus. Moreover, we uncover new connections, narrow in on the specific parts of the problem that need our attention, or unearth new insights. A problem map is an asset you can revisit, test ideas against, and use to guide your journey to a solution.
In the next chapter of our series, we’ll turn our discovered insights into problem statements. Problem statements guide our design process and lead us to better potential solutions.