The second step of the Design Thinking process is to define the problem. After gathering research and observations, you can begin to find common themes and pain points that emerge from the data.

This step must happen following focus group sessions, so that observers can identify the frequency and validity of comments made. It’s important to remember the Iceberg Principle, that things under the surface, not just the symptoms of an issue, ought to be addressed.

This is where the art of follow up questions comes in. As the pressure of a deadline looms, it’s tempting to rush to determine a conclusion. The risk of this is missing the deeper problem and more comprehensive solution that could emerge. For example, I might attribute a decrease in sales to ineffective marketing efforts, when the real problem is that the consumer doesn’t understand the use of the product. Defining the true problem requires a patience to listen, removing personal biases, and asking better questions.

In this Harvard Business Review article, Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas discuss the different kinds of questions that can be used to better define a problem and avoid making assumptions.

First, clarifying questions like “What do you mean by that?” allow respondents to expand their answer and reiterate the true meaning behind their response. If a user of my blog says that navigating my blog is complicated, asking this might reveal a more specific issue, like disorganized tabs or categories.

Second, Adjoining questions are used to expand the conversation and add other elements that might be overlooked. If the conversation is about how I want to market my product in Athens, GA, you could ask “How would this apply to other college towns?” Asking this might reveal something new about college students than would be discussed if we only focused on students at UGA, the context we inhabit.

Third, Funneling questions are used to “understand how an answer was derived, to challenge assumptions, and to understand the root causes of problems.” To continue the example of marketing in Athens, you might ask, “If students in Athens aren’t buying our product, what kind of purchasing power do they have, and does it makes sense to target them?” They try to learn something new about a specific aspect of the problem.

Lastly, elevating questions broaden the conversation to see it from a wider perspective. Asking about macro-economic or cultural trends frame the issue in a broader world. Taking a step back to ask, “What is the broader issue here?” or “What’s going on in the markets that might influence this issue?” could achieve this.

Besides asking questions in person, asking deeper questions of data that’s already available is also necessary for full understanding. One new method for gathering information and finding common themes among consumers is sentiment analysis. Digital marketers can analyze the feelings of customers by reviewing sentiment analysis data that recognizes the tone, language, and overall feeling captured in online platforms like social media and community forums. At the same time, software like this isn’t perfect or comprehensive, so other methods of research should accompany it.

Asking good questions helps reveal the true issues that wouldn’t be realized otherwise. Analyzing qualitative and quantitative data helps marketers and academics alike get closer to the truth. Humanities students may be more inclined to do this than business students, but we are all inclined to affirm conclusions we make before asking all the questions.

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