Problem Definition

A Problem Definition is

  • a genre of discourse or a passage of discourse that aims to describe a problem, including an analysis of its historical roots, causes and effects, stakeholders and disruptors.
    • The Problem Definition may constitute an entire text or may be a smaller part of a larger text, such as a paragraph or even a whole section of a text.

Key Terms: Problem Space; Rhetorical Stance


“If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.”

Albert Einstein

Defining problems is a genre of discourse, a reoccuring rhetorical situation. People write about problems in order to understand their constituent parts, causes, and effects.

In our daily lives, and certainly as part of our professional careers, we engage in defining problems. This is often perceived as the first step in problem solving. You cannot solve a problem if you don’t understand it.

People in a variety of professional roles compose texts that can be categorized as Problem Definitions.

  • Lawyer’s statement of the facts is a description of a problem space. For instance, in a slip and fall situation in front of the large grocery store, a lawyer would describe the rain, the texture of the road, the plaintiff’s past claims, and legal precedent. That’s all a problem definition.
  • Entrepreneurs, product managers, and developers engage in venture design (aka lean startup), which is a method for exploring the customer’s pain in a problem space. They evaluate how pain is experienced by particular types of customers, stakeholders, and strategic customers. After listening to customers, they work on prototypes –. And then they work on models, wireframes, prototypes to conceptualize applications and services. (In this way, product development is the equivalent of writing processes. Entrepreneurs constantly reiterating just as writers do.)
  • Psychologists listen to their patients, hoping to better understand their problems,The goal there is not to avoid the pain but to dig into it, to name and face it, and to question why it’s going on, what caused it, who enable or exacerbate the problem, and then to test and retest possible ways to overcome it (e.g., behavior cognitive therapy, meditation . . . ).
  • Developers listen to clients to understand their needs and desires when endeavoring to complete a given task (e.g., file taxes, upload a video, translate a file). To further substantiate the problem space, they may draw pictures of workflows. They may use wire framing to illustrate web pages or app pages. Then they may reiterate these applications and services by asking customers

Writers use a variety of media/medium to compose problem definitions. And, because the rhetorical situations for problems are so varied, there is no one way to write a Problem Definition.

That said, Problem Definitions need to be concisely and clearly written. They must engage in concise, reader-based prose style. They must not engage in a writer-based style. Instead, they tend to employ a You-Centered Business Style.