What problem are you trying to solve?

Seth Giammanco Seth Giammanco

At the core of product and design thinking is this simple question.

What problem are you trying to solve?

It requires moving away from thinking about a solution as a series of features or a series of actions a user can use or take. Answering this question requires going deep into the mind of the user and assessing what it is she/he is having trouble with.

It is not something you simply find the answer by asking a person. Often the problem shared in conversation may not be the “true” problem you want to focus on. You need to be open to the possibility that the problem cannot be consciously expressed.

Whether in planning a new campaign or if you and your organization decide to build a “product” to engage supporters there is great value to be had from taking a step back and making time to explore this question about the problem.

So how do you start exploring what the problem you are trying to solve is?

I'm going to answer this first by sharing where not to look for the answer.


The problem you are trying to solve for your supporters is more likely not the same as that of your organization.

Your organization’s mission, your tagline and your core messaging statement share your purpose and often describe the problem you are trying to solve that matters to the organization.

Your mission could be ending hunger, homelessness, ensuring quality education for all youth, or providing opportunity to develop leadership skills to make a difference. Your mission is your organizations' motivation and driving force. It is critical to keep in mind that this is not always what the individuals you hope to engage will most deeply connect with or be motivated by.

So let’s look at a mission like ending hunger. If you are creating a product or a solution that engages your constituents that are indeed hungry, then you might have a case where your organization’s problem and that of the audience you are creating something for are aligned. For example, maybe you are creating a user generated content campaign where those that are or have been recently hungry share their stories. This is a case where there is convergence of a problem.

That said, if you developing a fundraiser, an infographic, or petition campaign targeting a broader supporter audience likely there are one or more broader problems to explore. These target supporters may not be hungry themselves and as such their problem and solution they are looking for may be very different than the organization's.

  • Fear: Maybe they have fear of personally going hungry again.
  • Annoyance: Maybe they want to see the line at the soup kitchen on their block go away
  • Parental Empathy: Maybe the idea of their child being hungry and not having an immediate solution is too much to bear.

The people you are trying to engage need a story!

The importance of storytelling for nonprofits and social good efforts is non-disputable.

An aspect of telling stories to inspire engagement relies on an ability to have the content of the story connect to the problem of the individual consuming it.

To engage people you need to explore their stories to find their problems.

The following brief video is of Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Square and Twitter, sharing the idea and value of writing "user stories". It concisely describes a technique to help explore the problem you are trying to solve from a human perspective.

Make time to write user stories when you are designing your next campaign, downloadable resource, or tool to help users do something.

  • Put yourselves in the shoes of a person you want to engage.
  • Write many stories and allow time to percolate and discuss them.
  • Revise the stories and begin to whittle through them to extract the key problem of the person as it relates to your engagement opportunity.

Don't be afraid to explore the problems that your target audience may have that have nothing to do with your organization or engagement opportunity at all.

What is the story of someone whom is lonely or who thrives from building social capital? Can your campaign or product ethically offer solutions for these users and benefit your organization's mission? The Ice Bucket Challenge is a great example of a campaign that is addressing a need for so many of that campaign's supporters that is not that of the organization's.

Exploring user narratives and ultimately finding the problem/solution for your target audience is not a forumlaic effort. There is not a quantitative activity with a algorithm to follow. The act of doing and practice followed by execution and evaluation is what will lead to success.

Engagement comes from a problem being solved.

Aligning the problem your campaign or product addresses with that of a target audience is critical for its success. Remember that the problem your solution is trying to solve is likely not the same as that of your organization. In fact, the problem you are addressing for your audience may have nothing to do with your organization's.

A great technique to explore your target audience's stories is to write narratives. Detail that moment when a parent is walking with their toddler down the street and they see a line at a local soup kitchen. What goes through their mind? One version of the story may be empathetic while another may be scared, frustrated, and maybe even angry.