Defining Design Challenges

By Eliot Kersgaard

Good designs usually come out of a good design process. Good design processes usually do a good job of defining the challenge. This blog snippet is intended as a guide for defining challenges, and should be useful for your classroom, when embarking on the Myra Makes adventure with your kids, or even when starting an entrepreneurial venture.

Defining the challenge: identifying what your solution is going to help you do

A good way to start when defining your challenge for the first time is by asking questions. These questions are used to identify a problem, which we can then translate into a challenge. Here are some of the questions we use:

Who are we designing this for?

What unmet desires do they have?

What are pain points they are currently experiencing?

What is standing in their way from reaching these desires or eliminating their pains?


Let’s run through a simple example of this. Consider this situation:

Myra has just received a map to Cloud City from a market and she knows that she needs to cross the mountains in order to reach it.

Currently, Myra can see the mountains off in the distance.

What are her unmet desires? To reach Cloud City as quickly as possible

What is preventing her from meeting those desires? She walks slowly


Cool, so at this point we have a clearly identified problem! In order to convert it into a challenge, we need to verb it.

Verbing is a subtle game, and we can also think of it as casting our problem in terms of a function we are trying to fulfill. In this case, our function is to get to the mountains faster. This is ultimately what we are trying to accomplish. Now we can cast that function into a challenge: how can you help Myra reach the mountains faster?


We verb our problems in order to avoid bias introduced by framing our challenge in terms of a solution (a noun). Ultimately, our design solution is going to be a noun, but we don’t want to influence our process by assuming we know the solution to begin with. Here is an example of how we could have inappropriately biased this design challenge in terms of a noun:

Create a vehicle for Myra to travel to the mountains faster

This noun-based problem definition (vehicle) cuts off solution pathways that aren’t vehicles but still perfectly valid solutions to meeting Myra’s unmet desire (such as slingshots, teleporters, dragons, and a horde of bees chasing her)


As you dive deeper into the design process, you will want to continue to return to your problem definition to make sure you haven’t strayed too far from your original motive, and to more deeply understand the context in which you’re desigining. Some more advanced questions we like to ask include:

-Who are all of the stakeholders in this situation? What are their needs and motivations?

-What constraints are we working within?

-As a designer, what motivates your personal interest in the problem?

-What emotions are involved in this situation?


-Look at the situation as it changes over time and space


We hope this helps you as you undertake your own problem-solving adventures! Please feel free to share any thoughts in the comments below or by reaching out at Contact@MyraMakes.com



About the Author:

Eliot Kersgaard is an artist, educator and entrepreneur working to facilitate a cultural shift emphasizing justice and play. He is the founder and director of Myra Makes.

One Comment

  1. Harvey March 16, 2019 at 8:22 am - Reply

    Hi there! Such a wonderful article, thanks!

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