As a product designer, you might come across a brief like this: An ice cream truck company is concerned about ice cream dripping onto customers' hands. They want to design a new ice cream cone that reduces dripping.
That problem seemingly has one answer: a better cone.
But if we take a step back, we realize there’s a different, juicier problem here: could ice cream be more portable?
That question opens up all kinds of ideas (milkshakes, ice cream sandwiches, frozen pouches, etc), and feels way more fun to solve than figuring out the right cone design. By reframing the problem, we get more ideas.
Problem reframing is a powerful technique in design. In fact, some might say it’s the most important step in the entire design process. The last thing you want to do is spend a lot of time solving the wrong question, so trying out different frames of a question upfront is time well spent.
Let’s say you’ve been gunning for a promotion at work for a while now, and it’s just not happening. You keep asking about it, and working really hard, but for whatever reason, there’s no promotion yet and you’re feeling very frustrated. Chances are, you’re metaphorically bashing your head against the question “how do I get promoted here?”.
Now let’s try reframing that question by thinking about what’s driving your desire for a promotion. Is it recognition that you’re after? Or money? Perhaps you’ve grown bored of your current responsibilities and need a change. Perhaps you’re seeing your friends get promoted and feeling FOMO or a sense of inferiority. Once we zero in on the reason(s) behind wanting the promotion, the problem becomes easier to reframe.
And if it’s about FOMO and comparing yourself to your friends, well, all we can say is “join the club, we’re only human!”. This one is less about reframing and more about regularly checking in with ourselves on what we want from our careers, not what our friends have. (One great way to do this is to join a crew).
Problem reframing will help you generate new ideas and be more self-aware
Now that you’ve looked at the problem from multiple perspectives, let’s think about ways to achieve your goal. Let’s use the question from above “how might I grow in my career?”. Promotions are certainly one answer to that question, but there are lots of other ways too. For example,
Reframing also helps us navigate the emotional side of careers. When we reframe the way we feel, it helps us to think more productively about what we want to solve.
Shifting from “I hate my job” to “I hate the repetitive nature of my job, but I like that it gives me the headspace to focus on my side hobby,” helps us to remember that most jobs have some good elements, while also helping identify which elements we need in our own recipe for fulfilment. Then we can ask a different question: “how might I bring more creativity into my day-to-day work?” or “how might I spend even more time on my hobby?”.
Here are two of our favourite ways to reframe a question or problem at work.
A classic designer tactic is to ask a question and then follow it up by asking “why?” then “why?” again, and then up to three more times (you might have seen kids using this technique too!). We often do this in customer research to drill down to the real reason a customer made a choice about a product or feature. The first answer someone gives is usually the easiest, top-of-mind reason. But by asking why again and again, we can get to the real underlying motivation or emotion behind a decision. Turns out this works well when we’re doing “me-search” (research about me) too.
Let’s take Grace, an event planner who’s feeling burned out and thinking about quitting. Before making a big move, Grace decided to ask herself some “why” questions…
Why am I feeling so burned out?
I feel like I'm running fast all year long, preparing company events, product launches, last-minute PR parties, team building. I constantly feel over-stretched and stressed by my clients’ last minute requests and changes.
Well, it’s really just two of them, Client A and Client B. They never write clear briefs for the events so everything is in constant flux. They know I’ll deliver so they keep coming to me with fire drills, even on the day of the big event.
Client A was my first big client. I needed this work so I felt like I couldn’t mandate that they write clear briefs, even though I knew that’s what was needed. I did tell Client B we needed briefs and detailed plans, but they didn’t listen.
Client B is just so disorganized internally, they’ll never get it together to do proper planning.
Why keep them around?
Hmmm…I guess I don’t really need them.
Grace has just unlocked some powerful insights. She’s pinpointed a leading cause of her stress and begun investigating some reframes. She’s gone from “I’m feeling burnt out” to “I have two tricky clients and some choices for how to either change the relationship or quit them”.
Here’s another example:
Eric is a consultant at a management consultancy. He’s been there for about two years and it’s been pretty high stress the whole time. On his current project, he senses he’s reaching a breaking point and stops to investigate what’s going on with some ‘why” questions.
Why am I feeling so much pressure and stress right now?
The work is demanding, it’s taking a lot out of me and I feel like I’m not performing my best work.
Why is it so demanding?
This project feels particularly tough because I’m new to this space, and I can’t get a good read on my manager. I can never tell if she’s happy with my work or finds it lacking.
Why did I join (or get assigned to) such a new topic?
Because I was curious about the space and wanted to learn more. I guess I knew it would challenge me, but I like challenges.
Why can’t I read my manager?
We’re working remotely and we’re always so busy there’s no time for check-in’s. We were meant to have weekly 1:1’s for feedback and to discuss how we’re working together, but those have gotten squeezed out of the calendar. Without those, I have no way of knowing how I’m doing.
Eric’s “why” questions have discovered two important insights. The first is a reminder that learning something new is often uncomfortable. The second is a potential action he could take to gain clarity and comfort with his performance. Although it felt uncomfortable, Eric emailed his manager asking if they could make sure their 1:1’s happen this month as he could use some more feedback on his work. She apologized for letting them slide and came prepared with both reassuring and helpful feedback for their next meeting.
Many scenarios we encounter both at work and in our personal lives are entirely out of our control. Let’s revisit the desire for a promotion. In some cases, promotions are withheld because the person has not yet demonstrated the required criteria to earn that promotion.
Other times, promotions are withheld for reasons like a lack of budget, a hiring freeze, a manager who doesn’t know how to delegate work, a company that isn’t assessing candidates properly, or invisible work politics. All of these reasons have practically nothing to do with the employee. In fact, they’re almost entirely out of that person’s control.
It’s important to think about our challenges in terms of all of the factors involved, not just the ones directly linked to us. Doing so helps us to reframe the problem into something that we can tackle ourselves, and acknowledge the aspects beyond our sphere of influence.
Try this by picking something that’s been bothering you recently.
Now brainstorm all of the factors influencing the situation, both you-related and you-unrelated.
Once you’ve written several things down, step back and look at the balance across those two categories:
Let’s demonstrate this with the promotion question and our friend Alex. Alex has been working as an associate at a small law firm for seven years. She wants to make partner, but sees a few potential obstacles. Using this simple framework, she writes down the following:
Looking across this list, Alex notices that many of the firm-related reasons are related to timing. This enables her to reframe her thinking into the question: “How long am I willing to wait for this promotion?”. Looking at her me-related bullet points, she sees a need to build more relationships to improve her chances. She can now reframe this as “Would I rather invest more time building these relationships or switch companies and invest time in a different set of people?”
When doing the two reframing activities described above, we strongly encourage you to #getvisual. Getting visual is another principle from design. No doubt you’re familiar with the common saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Well, it applies to career design too. Writing down your thoughts and organizing them in a visual way helps you to see patterns and gain the clarity you could miss if they remain amorphous shapes in your head. It also keeps you focused.
Reframing is a powerful technique because it turns seemingly unsolvable problems into actionable questions. It also helps us to step back and reflect on the why’s (and then the how’s) of a situation. Just the step of pausing to reflect and ask a few questions often makes us feel much calmer and in control of our situation. It also sets us up for our next career design activity: Ideation—the subject of our next post!