MDF Service Design | Package 5 | Week 6–7

Problem Framing — from Define to Design

Matt Kurowski
8 min readDec 3, 2021
An overview of your next two weeks’ work

From Define to Design

As we start to move from analysis and synthesis of our interviews, balancing and shaping (converging) how A1 and A2 articulate a plausible and credible representation of the current state of our site(s), we have one final step to set us up to launch into our next divergent activities: building our “How Might We” questions.

How Might We questions are the point of inflection between convergent and divergent activity and thinking in the double diamond framework. They take what has been determined as meaningful to the project or problem/opportunity space and turn them into the levers, scaffolding and “tangible” inputs for us to explore what the future state might be.

From inferred current state to grounded current state

The inferred current state is our immersion into the problem space, helping to make things tangible and knowable. It gives us information to help us determine what we need to know. Johari windows, risk classification matrices etc. all fall into this space (not just this space, but they’re really useful here).

From grounded current state to future state

Now that we confidently know more about our problem space because it’s been informed by grounded research, we start to ask how what we know might be used to help us shift our current state to a preferred one: a future state. That’s the topic of this package.

Emotional journey

Shifting from Define to Design is challenging on many levels. There are the confused feelings of the sense of abandoning incomplete work from your synthesis; the contrasting confidence in your understanding of the current state which you’ll be relying upon to guide your Design explorations next up; the complete uncertainty of what will come of your concept and prototyping work and any sense of what “good” looks like.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

The list of challenges goes on. If it’s any consolation, it’s always like this — you do get better at knowing the feelings and believing in the process becomes easier the more projects you do. In a way and over time, the confusion of feelings becomes a good thing, a familiar uncertainty where, while the actual future state is unclear, the process and experience of discovery and the articulation of the future state themselves become the safe space from which you will determine something based in good, collectively-built and -shared research. While the destination is unknown, the journey of discovery itself is, as is the confidence that a destination will be found, but you’ll only know it when you get there.

Give yourself the space to pause after you’ve done your current state work. Like in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, practicing intentional disengagement from problem exploration and articulation is itself an art, but a critical factor in successful design practice, arguably risk-mapping directly to the complexity of the socio-technical system you’re involved with i.e. little problem, little disengagement; complex hairy problem, longer and more frequent disengagement.

Play is not (just) a kid-thing

  • “You don’t have to be serious to do serious work” ~Melis Senova, Huddle
  • “Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. Very few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” ~ Carl Sagan
Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash

Problematising the current state

Given the open nature of our enquiry in MDF Service Design, our point of inflection from Define to Design in the double diamond is where we identify what we’re interested in changing (shifting from a current to a preferred state). In a “traditional” project this happens at the beginning of the first diamond but, if we look closely at the Framework for Innovation, Design Council UK’s “improved double diamond”, we can see there’s a dotted line that loops our point of inflection at Define/Design right back to Discover again. This dotted line reminds us of the loopy and interconnected nature of design enquiry. For our purposes it’s a reminder that right now in our projects we could develop a brief using our work to date as a foundation for more discovery research, and repeating a traditional research-led approach. Instead, we’re moving into concept and prototyping, and determining that we have enough confidence and insight in our work to move toward exploring responses to our current state.

Welcome to the loopy world of design practice!

What we’re doing then, as a last activity in our Define stage, is defining the problem we’re going to be responding to in the Design stage. This is done by creating a “How Might We” question.

Photo by beasty . on Unsplash

How Might We…?

It’s easy to create a lot of noise trying to help people learn how to build a good HMW. For now, let’s use the NNGroup link above to wrap our heads around what a good HMW looks like.

Once you’ve got a feel for HMWs, it’s important to generate a lot of them. Quickly. Remember, this is about quantity over quality. We get to quality by synthesising it from the quantity. The quantity comes from all the work you’ve done so far:

- personas/archetypes
- journey maps
- findings
- insights
- assumptions
- parking lot
- hunches

All of these things, and the relationships between them, are considerations in your HMW generation. Here’s a kick start for you:

  1. Start by connecting two different things, say an insight and a JTBD. This could be any two things, often the less connected the better as it forces us to bring in more elements to capture the significant parts of our research which input into the original two different things
  2. What tensions exist there that could be explored? Write it down.
  3. Then quickly shape up a HMW which addresses that tension in a way that doesn’t bake in an obvious solution
  4. Repeat many times across many relationships drawing from the list from above

Now that we’ve got a bunch of HMWs that cover a lot of different problems (you can start to see how diverse your HMWs are by seeing how they spread across the 8Ps+), we can start our search for quality through a whole bunch of different approaches and methods, but for now we’re just going to look at two:

  1. affinity mapping — we know this one already. Look for affinities (obvious and not-so-obvious) and theme the overarching HMWs. Use prioritisation methods (e.g. impact/effort, dot voting, high-/mid-/lowball) as a starting point to land on ONE HMW only.
  2. Challenge mapping — like using abstraction laddering, challenge mapping takes HMWs and pulls and stretches them like pizza dough to evaluate their relative value. This link is a good start:\

However you get there, once you’ve got your Final How Might We question you can successfully and confidently move into the divergent Design quadrant of the double diamond and commence…

Photo by Med Badr Chemmaoui on Unsplash

Concept Generation!

I get really excited by concept generation. I’ve come to refer to it as “the first view of the possible new” because I like rhymes.

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Here’s a metaphor for concept generation in design. Note that some of the concepts in parentheses are captured in the links at the end of the article:

You’re walking down a hallway labeled “the How Might We Hallway” and arrive at Divergence Junction with its many, many doors (possible futures), each with an empty picture frame in it.

Above the junction is a sign which says: “You can only pick one door” (Deliver).

Each door also has a list of variables comprising a different subset of all the JTBD, personas, pain points etc., insights, findings that describes what might sit on the other side of each door (inputs, principles & constraints, goals).

Like we mentioned above, each door represents a possible future. The lists on some doors are similar to others, some are very different to all the others.

Over time (not long) and using the items on the list next to each door you draw a sketch, graph, chart, (concept) of what you think sits behind each door (e.g. Crazy 8s).

Soon your choice of doors each has a concept on it representing the list and responding to the HMW statement (concept card).

This helps you to decide on the one door you want to open. By comparing all the quickly generated ideas you can then decide (evaluation and prioritisation) which door is the one you want to open (develop).

If none of them are quite right, you can keep concepting on other doors (ideation), using your learnings from your previous concepts (synthesis) to create more/better possibilities.

Over time you get hungry, tired and thirsty so you have to decide on one door to walk down (design freeze).

Walking through the door (Deliver) you iterate your work (refine), backtracking to HMW Hallway to make sure you’re on the best track (not the right one, there is no right one). Sometimes it takes a while to realise you’re going down a dead end. That happens. Go back to Divergence Junction, have a look at your previous concepts and try again.

End metaphor.

As you get more confident in concept generation, you get better and faster at divergence, conceptualisation and play. But there will always be dead ends.

N.B. we could use some strategic thinking and approaches here and use, for example, backcasting or inversion from scenarios (what we call ideal state) but that’s a different thing entirely.


Here’s an “end-to-end” approach:

Just going crazy (8s):

You have to sign up but it’s worth it:

Next package:

Storytelling. We help you shape your resolved concept into a compelling story which showcases not only the concept itself but why it’s worth championing and how we got there.

Go well!

~Matt Kurowski, 2021



Matt Kurowski

Senior consultant and advisor for sustainable organisational innovation (SMEs); industry fellow at RMIT School of Design.