A4: Write a Problem Report

As a quick recap, so far this semester we:

  • Searched the internet for problems, affected stakeholders, and the aspects related to each (A1)
  • Explored a civic issue using data and data visualization to understand the extent of the problem (A2)
  • Conducted field studies to gain a more nuanced understanding of the problem rooted in stakeholders' real-life experiences (A3)

We also heard first-hand from numerous experts in class. This assignment brings all of this research together into a Problem Report. This “problem framing” process (also known as problem scoping) is a process of identifying the scope, scale, and objectives of the problem-solving process. Problem framing brings together all of the information needed to understand the problem from different perspectives in order to contextualize and constrain the problem space. Problem frames can be used to communicate the designer’s mental model and to ensure stakeholders and designers are on the same page.

The overall goal for this assignment is to create a convincing case, with supporting evidence, that the problem you have identified is real and important. As a class, we will collectively rally around ~20 different problems to explore as larger teams for A5 and beyond. This report will help you motivate teammates to join you on your mission, or if your problem is not selected this quarter, it will serve as a starting point for other teams who might jump in and address this problem at a later point.

Learning goals

  • Understanding problems from multiple different stakeholder perspectives
  • Identifying the central paradox and articulate a clear problem using a “how might we” (HMW) statement.
  • Motivating a problem using compelling evidence (e.g.: data visualization, field studies, narrative).
  • Compiling information about the problem by clearly identifying the key stakeholders, constraints (e.g.: social, environmental, economic, political), as well as the potential methods, work-arounds, and approaches to address the problem.
  • Creating visual representations— i.e., stakeholder value exchange diagrams— that communicate assumptions and hypotheses about how key stakeholders interact.

Optional Reading/Resources

What to do

For this assignment, you should work with the partner that you found for A3, as this will be a continuation of that work.

Become experts! Take stock of everything you have learned about your problem area. This includes your secondary research from A1 captured as notes and URLs in your personal digital notebook. This includes the articles and data visualizations you examined for A2. This definitely incorporates information from your team’s field research summary in A3. This would be a really good time to go back to read and compare notes, and do additional research to supplement what you’ve learned so far as a team. Through discussions with your teammate and reading Slack posts by your peers, you might realize new search terms, stakeholders, and problem details that should be incorporated into this report.

Discuss the central paradox and articulate a “how might we” statement. A central paradox articulate what makes the problem hard. For example, in the area of bike safety, one might highlight this paradox: “bikes need to stay in the bike lane, but sometimes the bike lane is unsafe.” It can also represent a conflicting needs of two different stakeholders: “car drivers need to move into the bike lane when turning right, but they sometimes collide with bike riders using this lane.” You can see how these two statements address the same problem, but from two different frames. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, but you should aim to make the core issues clear for other people. Once you frame this point of view on the problem space, write a “how might we” statement that articulates the core problem in a manner that invites idea generation. That is, the core question you pose here should have more than one plausible answer/solution. Here are some examples based on the bike safety scenario:

  • How might the City of San Diego improve the safety of bike lanes?
  • How might we help car drivers stay aware of nearby bike riders?
  • How might we redesign bike lanes so that bike riders can move around safely in the face of other vehicles that need to cross into the lane?

Create a stakeholder value-exchange diagram. As a team, find a whiteboard or a large sheet of paper where you can collaboratively sketch a conceptual representation of your selected problem. In class on Jan 28th we will demonstrate how to create stakeholder maps that illustrate how they interact and exchange value. We will do an in-class activity to help get you started and then you can work with your partner to create a single diagram that merges your ideas into a single stakeholder value-exchange diagram. Your Problem Report should include a digital version of this diagram to help explain the complexity of the problem space, as well as potentially highlight what you see as the central paradox of the problem.

Write the Problem Report. A Problem Report is a concise and clear articulation of the proposed problem that offers concrete evidence and motivates other people to join the effort. Your Problem Report must be 2-3 pages in length (citations can extend beyond 3 pages) and include the following sections:

  • Title: write your “how might we” statement.
      • Example template: “How might we [make some change] so that [clearly defined stakeholder] can [goal that state that they would like to achieve] in the face of [central problem that stands in the way]?”
      • Specific examples above
  • Teaser Image: Include an overview image that quickly helps people understand the problem.
  • Motivation: write 2-5 paragraphs about the context and the problem.
      • Tip #1: A good strategy is to start with a big picture (larger problem that everyone cares about) and drill down to the specific problem you want to address (this problem should have a clear stakeholder or stakeholders).
      • Tip #2: To motivate people to care about the problem, be sure to include some evidence to support your arguments - such as compelling narratives and/or data that demonstrates the extent of the problem. Provide links to relevant data sources, news articles, testimonials, survey/interview quotes, field research data, etc. You may embed photos and visualizations to help make your case. This is where you combine everything you have learned/absorbed through the first three assignments. (building on the work you did in A1, A2)
  • Problem Information: Provide details that would help others understand the key stakeholders and how they interact, key constraints, and the central paradox of this problem as you see it.
      • Central Paradox: As a single paragraph, state and then explain the central paradox of the problem. Clearly describe how the problem could be seen as multifaceted.
      • Stakeholders: list the stakeholders and write one sentence for each describing either how they are affected by the problem, why they care about the problem, or how they might be instrumental in any related solution (e.g.: a local government entities). This should also discuss the goals of each stakeholder as it relates to your problem area, as well as the value exchange that happens between stakeholders.
      • Stakeholder value exchange diagram: Iterate on your sketches of a conceptual diagram that illustrates key stakeholders and how they interact. Create a digital version of your stakeholder value exchange diagram that can be embedded in your problem report. Include a caption under your diagram that highlights a key tension or problem within the value exchange model.
      • Constraints: list all constraints that help identify the boundaries of the problem. Be broad in the first pass and list every constraint that comes to mind (think brainstorming => constraintstorming). Next, list out any assumptions that may be embedded in each constraint. Building on our biking example, one constraint is that changing road and sidewalk infrastructure (e.g., expanding the roadway) may be very expensive or virtually impossible without knocking out existing structures. Another example constraint would be painted lines to indicate the rules around the bike lane. In this case, the constraint is not as difficult to change or adjust. One might consider low-cost prototypes, such as adding painted lines or signs that can be experimented with over time.
      • Assets and resources: list all currently available assets that could be useful for addressing your civic issue. This may include existing organizations of people, sources of funding, open data sets, specific materials or skills, or anything that could be potentially be part of a comprehensive approach to addressing the problem.
      • Citations: For any information that you include from articles, websites, journals, etc, make sure to include a citation marker (typically these are just numbers [1] that correspond with a list of references at the end of your report).


  • By 5pm on Jan 31st: Submit your team’s Problem Report (as described above) as a PDF attached to a Slack forum post. The Problem Report should be ~2-3 pages. At the maximum, your written report can be 3 pages long, and then you can include as many extra pages as you need for citations. For information that does not fit into your problem report, you can include a citation URL for your personal digital notebook. Make sure to include your full names as well as a comprehensive list of citations. Note: this is now due at the same time as the A3 Field Research report on Jan 31st. Your team may submit these as two separate documents attached to the same Slack message
          • Example Slack post for Jan 31st: “My partner Joe Smith and I have been researching the topic of bike safety in busy intersections. Our field research report includes interviews with an avid biker, a bike safety advocate, and a driver, as well as an observational study of one of the Fatal Five intersections. Our problem report is framed around the question of How Might We help car drivers stay aware of nearby bike riders? Please read and let us know if you would be interested in working on this problem with us!”
  • Before class on Tuesday Feb 4: Each teammate should read over 6-10 Problem Reports from other teams and comment on three that you would be interested in working on the rest of the quarter. Ideally you will select three other teams that align with the topic you have already been working on, but you can choose to pivot and work on something else. Your comment can reflect on the clarity and importance of the problem, provide additional data or insights that can help the team, and offer ways to combine insights with your own research. We will use this information to create "affinity groups" of 12-15 people for discussion and brainstorming on Feb 4th.
  • To prepare for class on Feb 4th: To prepare for open discussions and design sprints, bring each of these aspects of assignment A4 printed out on paper and ready to hang on the wall to discuss and ideate (print everything with large font so that it's legible for someone standing 3-4 meters away):
      • Your HMW statement to concisely express the central problem.
      • Your stakeholder value-exchange diagram to give an overview of your problem.
      • A list of key constraints and assumptions about your problem area.

Grading rubric

Grades will be on a 10-pt scale (10% of total class grade) based on the following:

  • Is the team’s problem report on-time, complete, and high quality?
  • Does the problem report identify a concrete and extensive list of stakeholders?
  • Has the team identified and articulate key stakeholder relationships in the diagram?
  • Does the problem report offer a clear point of view on the problem through the How Might We statement and central paradox?
  • Does the Problem Report articulate a compelling case that motivate others to address this challenge?