1.1 KEY CONCEPT: Problem-Solving Approach to Communications Tasks

In the workplace, many of the communications tasks you perform are designed to solve a problem or improve a situation. Whether you are doing work for a client, for your employer, with your team, or for someone else, you will typically use some sort of design process to tackle and solve the problem. A clearly-articulated design process provides you with a clear, step-by-step plan for finding the best solution for your situation.

Take a moment to search the Internet for the term “design process” and look at “images.” You will find many variations. Have a look at several of them and see if you can find a common pattern.

One commonality you will likely find in examining other people’s design process diagrams is this: the first step in designing any solution is to clearly define the problem. Figure 1.1.1 shows NASA’s basic design process. Think about the kind of communication that each step of this process might entail.

State the problem, generate ideas, select a solution, build the item, evaluate, present results, and repeat
Figure 1.1.1 NASA’s Design Process Diagram. [1]

You cannot begin to work on solutions until you have a clear definition of the problem and goals you want to achieve. This critical first stage of the design process requires that you effectively communicate with the “client” or whoever has the “problem” that needs solving. Poor communication at this stage can derail a project from the start.

For our purposes, we will use Barry Hyman’s Problem Formulation model [2] to clearly define a problem. Hyman’s Problem Formulation model consists of 4 elements:

  1. Need Statement: recognizes and describes the need for a solution or improvement to an “unsatisfactory situation.”  It answers the questions, “what is wrong with the way things are currently? What is unsatisfactory about it? What negative effects does this situation cause?” You may need to do research and supply data to quantify the negative effects.
  2. Goal Statement:  describes what the improved situation would look like once a solution has been implemented. The goal statement defines the scope of your search for a solution. At this point, do not describe your solution, only the goal that any proposed solution should achieve. The broader you make your goal, the more numerous and varied the solution can be; a narrowly focused goal limits the number and variety of possible solutions.
  3. Objectives define measurable, specific outcomes that any feasible solution should optimize (aspects you can use to “grade” the effectiveness of the solution). Objectives provide you with ways to quantifiably measure how well any solution will solve the problem; ideally, they will allow you to compare multiple solutions and figure out which one is most effective (which one gets the highest score on meeting the objectives?).
  4. Constraints define the limits that any feasible solution must adhere to in order to be acceptable (pass/fail conditions, range limits, etc.). The key word here is must — constraints are the “go/no go” conditions that determine whether a solution is acceptable or not.  These often include budget and time limits, as well as legal, safety and other regulatory requirements.

Communication as Solution

This model can apply to a communications task as well as more physical design tasks. Imagine your communications task as something that will solve a problem or improve a situation. Before you begin drafting this document or presentation, define the problem you want to solve with this document:

  • Understand the Need: consider what gave rise to the need to communicate. Does someone lack sufficient information to make a decision or take a position on an issue? Did someone request information? Is there some unsatisfactory situation that needs to be remedied by communicating with your audience? What specifically is unsatisfactory about it? Consider your audience.  For example
    • A potential client lacks sufficient information on whether the solution I have proposed to solve the client’s problem will be feasible, affordable, and effective.
    • My instructor lacks sufficient examples of my written work to assign a grade for how well I met the course learning objectives. 
  • Establish a Goal: consider your purpose in writing. What do you want your reader to do, think, or know? Do you want your reader to make a decision? Change their opinion or behaviour? Follow a course of action? What is your desired outcome? And what form and style of communication will best lead to that outcome?  For example
    • Provide the client with enough information, in an effective and readable format, to make a decision (ideally, to hire you to build the solution for the problem).
    • Provide my instructor with samples of my writing that demonstrate my achievement of the course learning objectives (provide relevant and complete  information in a professionally appropriate format, using evidence-based argument; earn an A+ grade on the assignment.)
  • Define Objectives: consider the specifics of your message and your audience to determine what criteria you should meet. What form should it take? What content elements will you need to include? What kind of research will be required? What information does your audience want/need? What do they already know?
    • Review the client’s RFP to see what specific objectives it lists and how your proposal will be assessed.
    • Review the Assignment Description and Grading Rubric for your assignment to determine specific requirements and objectives that your instructor will use to evaluate your work.
  • Identify Constraints: what are the pass/fail conditions of this document?  Consider your rhetorical situation. What conditions exist that present barriers or challenges to communication? How can you address them? For example,
    • how much time is your audience willing to spend on this? How long can you make your document or presentation? (word length/time limit)
    • What format and style do they require? Is there a Style Guide you must follow? A template you can use?
    • How much time do you have to create it?  Do you have a deadline? (due date)
    • Are there requirements for using sources? (academic integrity rules)

Keep in mind that the document you produce is evaluated in terms of how well it responds to the “problem” — that is, how well it meets the overall goal and demonstrates achievement of specific objectives while abiding by constraints.

EXERCISE 1.2 Define a problem

Think of a problem or an “unsatisfactory situation” that you have recently experienced.  It could be as simple as it’s 8pm, I haven’t had dinner yet, and I’m hungry. Use Hymen’s Problem Formulation schema to formally define the problem — without proposing any particular solutions. Your problem definition should ideally allow a multitude of possible solutions that adhere to the following:

  1. Need/Unsatisfactory situation:
  2. What is your goal?
  3. What are some measurable objectives you want to achieve?
  4. What are your constraints?

Download and use the attached Problem Definition Template (.docx)

  1. "NASA design process."  NASA STEM Engagement [Online]. Available: https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/best/index.html.Used for educational and noncommercial purposes.
  2. B. Hyman, “Ch. 2: Problem formulation,” in Fundamentals of Engineering Design, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002, pp. 40-54.


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Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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