Phase One: The Design Challenge

The Design Challenge is the second in a series of posts regarding design and how organizations can improve their likelihood of creating and capturing value by infusing their process with moderated research. Here’s the overview post, if you missed it.

Our Point of View

If companies are going to leverage the potential of design thinking, it is critical understand and articulate the design challenge to frame your project. A good design challenge avoids a bias towards a solution or technology, while setting up the project for success. Be intentional about setting and understanding your design challenge.

Be Intentional: Setting the Frame

At Handrail, we agree with Jared Spool that “design is the rendering of intent.” Additionally, we believe design must be intentional. To that end, our intent at this first phase of the design process is to frame the opportunity in terms of business goals and user needs doing our best to avoid talking about potential solutions or technical fixes. Setting a frame that is free of solution and technology bias is critical.

Good Designs Starts with a Good Design Challenge

During this phase, we have three research objectives:

  • Understand the design challenge
  • Identify business goals
  • Recognize user needs

In addition the the research objectives, we advise teams to avoid “solutioning” at this phase. Work to avoid a bias for a solution or a technology at this critical juncture of the design process.

Good Design Creates & Captures Value

The life of your business depends on its ability to create and capture value. The organization must present something of value that it can exchange with the market. In turn, the organization must be intentional about capturing value. Your design work needs to address how the whole system creates, delivers, and captures value.

The Challenge Phase sets the tone for the design project, so take the time and energy to be intentional. Set project direction by defining and balancing customer/user needs, business and project goals. Much like Sprint 0 in Agile projects, this critical first phase is often glossed over or skipped altogether. Some may argue that they are skipping for speed, but my experiences tells me that time and resources saved are lost in rework later in the process or the design missing the target with the market – unable to create or capture value.

“Design Is How It Works”

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs

Venn Diagram depicting business goals and customer needs.
The design target maximizes the space between business goals and customer needs.

When we say design, we are talking about how the whole thing works, not just how something looks. Design strives to maximize the space between business goals and customer needs. In the Venn diagram, your design target is the area of overlap where the empathetic solution is presented competently by the business to the customer. Empathy helps us understand the users and recognize their needs, However, if the business does not do this competently (look like a trusted solution, believable, etc.) it will not resonate with the customer.

Hitting your design targets starts with committing to the Challenge Phase. During the Challenge Phase, as well as the Discovery Phase, which we will discuss in a future post, it is important to avoid assumptions. Work to state only what is known to be true and avoid a bias for solution or a technology. Be willing to adjust level of zoom or your aperture at this stage of the process.

A helpful point from the Google Sprint method is knowing the design team works to balance an understanding of the long-term goal with the immediate challenge. A healthy tension between these two vantage points will help the design team be open to understanding the problem and the context before jumping to solution.

Key Takeaways

  • Work to understand and articulate the challenge
  • Avoid Leading with a solution or technology bias
  • Frame the challenge through facts we know to be true

Next Steps

  • Check out Handrail’s UX Guide for more resources to help with your Design Challenge
  • Stay tuned for our next post in this series, The Discovery Phase


How do your teams address a design challenge? What obstacles have you faced early in the design process? Let us know in the comments section.

About Handrail

We built Handrail to help teams collaborate throughout the entire user research process. Plan, collect, analyze, store, and share your research all in one location. Sign up for a free 30-day trial today.

Matt Arnold

Matt is a researcher and product specialist at Handrail, Inc. He is passionate about human-centered design and helping teams do more effective research. Matt has led strategy and design work for early and late stage startups, as well as some of the country’s most recognized brands.

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