A framing question is a preliminary description that delimits and defines the problem sufficiently so that the team can begin to examine its broader system/field.
Although design thinkers aim to come up with creative ideas and innovative solutions to a certain issue, the precise problem is not yet clear. The issue is often quite open; something is not satisfactory and should be going better. For example: although employees in an organisation may have an urgent sense that their knowledge sharing is not good enough and should, therefore, be improved, they usually do not know the cause, let alone how to solve it.
How can you do (field) research when there is no specific problem yet? Where should you look and what should you investigate? The lack of time and resources requires focus on the design team’s explorations and research. However, be careful to keep the focus broad enough to include domains and topics that are relevant for developing valuable solutions.
The framing question occupies this pivotal position by helping the design team first appropriately delimit the problem so that the research is viable and then get an idea of the broader field of the forces and factors at the root of the problem to be explored and investigated.
The design team working on the issue of knowledge sharing might question the important forces that cause the current situation to give focus to their research. This should help them to dig deeper into the system that causes inadequate sharing of knowledge. A good framing question should provide a direction for starting the (design) research that will lead to a deeper, systemic understanding of the issue at hand.
Note that this question is just a tool and not the final question that the team seeks to answer. Iterations are likely to change and improve the question during the research. When the design team on knowledge sharing discovers that it should reformulate its framing question into What effects do workstations have on knowledge sharing?, this happens because of the understanding reached about the role of workstations.
The framing question is a pragmatic tool for understanding the current situation within the existing conditions and context. This explains why a design team of 10 working on the issue for three weeks will frame the question differently than a team of three working for just a few days. In framing the question, the team should try to find a meaningful direction for doing research that helps it to understand why things are functioning as they currently do.
By combining systems thinking to understand the causes of the current behaviour in the system with user-centred thinking to understand the user that experiences the current behaviour, the framing question aims to develop designs focused on improving the system as a whole, not just the individual parts or units. As the framing question is not a scientific question, you will want to focus on a specific user group that is experiencing the issue. Compare the resulting focus when you ask What causes the insufficient knowledge sharing in the management team? with asking What causes it in the IT team? With design research, you aim to focus on contexts of specific user groups.
The focus should be on understanding why things are going as they currently do.
You can ask yourself questions like:
- Why is that system the way that it is?
- What are the forces that cause the current condition?
If possible, focus these questions by zooming in on a specific user group. Try asking:
- What causes the existing situation for this user group?’ (the people your prototype will be designed for and whose situation you seek to improve)
Note that you should only include the user group when it is helpful. If a user group is not yet clear, there is no need to force it until your research in context brings clarity to defining your user group(s).
If the above questions are not immediately applicable, try asking:
- What accounts for the current situation in [field] and what issues do [stakeholders] have here?
Note that the question is not too narrow. You do not want to exclude topics that are relevant for exploring the field and understanding what is going on. The framing question should NOT already indicate or suggest solutions. It is not the How might we… question that will be used later for brainstorming in the design process, like, “How might we use ICT to improve knowledge sharing among managers”? Also avoid embedding untested or contentious assumptions, like, What accounts for the ways that older staff lacks knowledge sharing capabilities?
Discuss in your team how you will formulate the framing question. When this is clear, write it on a large sticky note at the centre of a large sheet of paper or a flipchart; then surround it with the relevant forces.