with a focus that will provide the
most input for high-priority business
The benefits of problem space
research are strategic and recur over
time. When you are working on your
solutions, problem space research
gives your organization both direction
and subtle advantages.
1. Within the academic discipline of design
research, awareness and adoption is much
greater. In those areas, studies exploring
the nature of creativity have produced
papers that define concepts such as
“co-evolution of problem-solution” and
“wicked or tame problems.” See Dorst,
K. and Cross, N. Creativity in the design
process: Co-evolution of problem–solution.
Design Studies 22, 5 (2001), 425–437.
And Rittel, H. W.J. On the Planning Crisis:
Systems Analysis of the “First and Second
2. See the description of the bubble people
build around themselves in: Gray, D. Liminal
Thinking – Create the Change You Want by
Changing the Way You Think. Two Waves, 2016.
3. See Young, I. Practical Empathy – For
Collaboration and Creativity in Your Work.
Rosenfeld Media, 2015; and Young, I. Mental
Models – Aligning Design Strategy with
Human Behavior. Rosenfeld Media, 2008.
4. The idea of flexible representations of
audience groups is not new. It is known in
marketing via various terms, including
component lifestyles. See the marketing text
book: Lamb, C. W., Jr. MK TG. SouthWestern College Pub., 11th edition, 2017.
5. See Describing Personas on Medium.com,
by Indi Young, Mar. 14, 2016; https://
6. Aristotle was referenced by Richard
Buchanan, who shaped the Carnegie
Mellon (CMU) School of Design in the
mid-1990s to early 2000s. See Gajendar, U.
Notes on the future of interaction design.
Interactions (Sept.-Oct. 2017), 46.
Indi Young is a freelance problem space
researcher and coach. She helps organizations
reframe offerings, innovate, and strengthen
the way they support people. She was a
founding partner of Adaptive Path (acquired
by Capital One) and has authored two books:
Mental Models and Practical Empathy.
Kunyi Mangalam has used qualitative research
for 30 years to reveal how people think, feel,
and live, helping organizations understand
their audiences more deeply and thus make
innovate around commercial and
Within the culture of many for-profit
and even nonprofit organizations,
there are misgivings about work that
does not directly improve the offering.
This feeling pairs with a conviction
that enough is already known about
the problem. Team members may have
years of experience in their industry
and prefer to make progress rather than
investigate any assumptions at the core
of their work. Over the years, we’ve
helped leaders show their organizations
the value of problem space research.
There are a couple of techniques we use
to overcome this reluctance.
First, there are useful mindsets.
Solving problems is fulfilling. Ideas
convey status upon the teams that
conceive them. Being asked to
abandon the solution space and its
visible development activities for a
time is like being asked to abandon
the mindset that brought you to where
you are in your career. Entering the
problem space becomes an exercise
in reframing beliefs about work.
Additionally, organizations race
headlong through development cycles,
applying agile and lean practices to
make progress with a minimum viable
product every few weeks. A mindset
focused on the speed of the cycles
has taken hold of business and has
virtually prevented any contemplative
approaches, except within innovation
centers or where leaders have the
power to establish this practice.
To help organizations gain better
clarity about the role of the problem
space, the advice we have is to
decouple it from the design/develop/
improve cycles or any of the other
solution space activities (Figure 4).
It is not a step within the solution
space cycle. It does not come first
but rather is a separate and ongoing
resource. You don’t need to study the
problem space with every cycle of
development. It can be added to with
successive studies, once a year.
Another bit of advice comes in
the form of an analogy that may
help you explain how to fit problem
space research into the culture of
software development. Problem
space research is like the sun, giving
energy to all the spinning solution
projects orbiting it (Figure 5). Lots of
research and production happens on
those planets, evolving the function
and presentation of the service or
product. The energies from the sun—
this knowledge of mental spaces that
were not on the radar, or thinking
styles that had been ignored—provide
vision to the team and help them
focus their efforts to support specific
edge cases. Problem space research
is where you develop empathy so that
you have a solid understanding you
can use when you apply empathy
when you are designing solutions. It
is the pathos in Aristotle’s triad of
ethos/pathos/logos [ 6]. Perhaps the
team will write algorithms specific
to the person driving a company
truck, in the context of defusing
the tension between the person
and the other driver involved in
the accident. In a world of machine
learning, specialized algorithms will
be prevalent, along with the ability
for these algorithms to listen to their
users and hand off to other algorithms
that may be able to better support a
particular thinking style and context.
Our final tip is to use language that
resonates with decision makers at
your organization. Non-researchers
are often more comfortable with
language that conveys certainty that
solid results will come out of the
expense and effort of research. Words
like test, validate, determine, measure,
and identify convey confidence.
Words like explore, investigate, study,
observe, and uncover tend to resonate
best within the research-practitioner
An unexpected benefit of problem
space research is that it requires
decision makers to choose an audience
and context to explore. Narrowing
down from the-sky-is-the-limit
creates fear that better opportunities
might be found in a branch different
from the one they chose. Part of
the work going into problem space
research is to help stakeholders
carefully consider all the avenues
to explore and become comfortable
DOI: 10.1145/3159449 COPYRIGHT HELD B Y AUTHORS. PUBLICATION RIGHTS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00