5a. Understanding context

Understanding context

Understanding the broader context

You’ve now identified a problem that needs to be solved, and have started generating potential solutions.

At this point it can be valuable to take a step back and consider the broader context in which this problem exists.

In this module we’ll explore how to use analogous problems, existing solutions, and relevant trends to inspire new ideas and help you refine your existing concepts.

Identifying analogous problems

Analogous problems are problems that are similar to the one you’re trying to solve, but exist in slightly different contexts or industries.

Looking at how analogous problems have been solved can give you new ideas about how to approach your own problem. You may also learn about things that haven’t worked in other contexts or industries, which will give you ideas about what to avoid when creating your own solutions.


Imagine that you are asked to design a solution that will help children from distant rural communities get to school.

To identify an analogous problem, ask yourself, “In what other situations are people or companies picking up goods and delivering them to different locations?” One example that might come to mind is produce delivery.

Your next step as a designer is to investigate how produce delivery services manage their products and coordinate their truck routes. How do they help get the right produce to the right grocery store or market stand? Maybe the trucks pick up produce from different farms and drop them at central distribution centers, from which the produce is then transported to the appropriate store.

You can now think about what it would mean to explore similar solutions in your own problem space - in this case, helping children in rural communities get to school. For example, maybe children could be brought to a distribution center where buses would then take them to the correct school.

This activity could also inspire you to think of other solutions: maybe there could actually be ride-sharing between children and produce trucks! Maybe there could be built-in seating in the produce trucks to transport more children, safely, on the back of trucks.

Keep in mind that there will be solutions that work well for an analogous problem that may seem silly, impossible, or simply irrelevant when translated into your own problem space. But analogous problems (and their related solutions) can be a great way to find design inspiration and to consider aspects of a solution that you may not have previously thought of.

Learning from existing solutions

Existing solutions are products or services that already attempt to solve your problem or some component of your problem. Existing solutions can be another source of design inspiration, and an opportunity for learning about what has or hasn’t worked well in the past.

Imagine that you are asked to design a new tool that will keep people informed about the latest news in their area.

To explore existing solutions, you would take a look at the current ways people learn about local news today - like newspapers, mobile phones, websites, television programs, radio programs, and even talking to other community members.

You can then ask yourself what works well about each of these solutions, and what doesn’t work well? 

Maybe you discover that people like talking to other people in the community to learn about local news, because they hear about more personally relevant stories that way. This could give you a new idea about what could make the new tool you’re designing more desirable (personally relevant stories).

Or, maybe you discover that people dislike learning the news through television and radio programs because they can’t easily share stories with friends. Again, this could give you an idea about something your design solution might address (sharing with friends).


Understanding relevant trends

Trends are waves of change that sweep through our societies. Unlike fads, trends tend to be longer-lasting and have a broader impact.

Exploring relevant trends can help you understand how your problem and potential solutions fit into the world around them. A trends analysis can give you insight into the forces that are likely going to shape user expectations and future product design.

It can be helpful to use the STEEP framework to guide your trends exploration. STEEP stands for Social trends, Technology trends, Environmental trends, Economic trends, and Policy trends.

To use the STEEP framework, begin by coming up with a list of trends that exist within each category. Find this information by observing your world, and reading news, blogs, and articles.

Example trends that fit into each of the STEEP categories

Social trends
Demographic shifts (e.g., aging population)
Changes in cultural values (e.g., sustainability as a status symbol)
Changes in attitudes toward institutions (e.g., growing distrust in government)

Technology trends
Emerging technologies (e.g., self-driving automobiles)
Dying technologies (e.g., CDs)
Infrastructure changes (e.g., growth of wireless networks)

Economic trends
Emerging or declining markets (e.g., decline in family-owned agriculture)
Employment shifts (e.g., increase in entrepreneurs)

Environmental trends
Resource availability (e.g., water scarcity)
Changes in the built environment (e.g., high-density urban slums)

Policy trends
Regulatory changes (e.g., carbon emission restrictions)
Bureaucratic changes (e.g., change in leadership)
Institutional stability (e.g., community-led protests)

How to conduct a trends analysis

  1. Skim news headlines, look at what people are posting and sharing on social networks, and observe what’s happening in your local community to identify trends in each STEEP category.

  2. Use this worksheet to capture lists of trends in each category.

  3. For each trend you’ve identified, ask yourself, “What might this mean for the problem I’m trying to solve?" and  “How could this trend shape or impact my potential solution?”
  4. Highlight or circle the trends within each category that could have the greatest impact on the problem, or the type of solution you should create. Focus on these trends as you refine your existing concepts or come up with new solution ideas. 

If you'd like to learn more about trends analysis, read this report.

Try it out: Identify an analogous problem and an existing solution

  1. Identify one analogous problem and one existing solution relevant to your problem.
  2. Use these as design inspiration to improve your existing ideas, or generate new concepts.
  3. In your problem-specific learning group, share the analogous problem and existing solution you identified. What type of new concepts did they inspire you to consider?
  4. Share with your learning group your thoughts on the pros and cons of using analogous problems and existing solutions as sources of design inspiration.