How to Make a Design Framework to Structure Your Project

A framework is a simple diagram that organizes the dimensions of your project in a helpful way. Follow these tips to clarify your team's next challenge.

Chris Conley

August 9, 2016

One of the most challenging aspects of modern business problems is that they are highly unstructured. To grow a new business or expand an existing one, you have to figure out what the problem or area of opportunity is. That’s where frameworks come in–they help you understand your problem in a new way.

Before you can have great ideas to prototype, test and launch, you have to understand and frame your problem in an approachable way.

At gravitytank, we create one or more frameworks in the first phase of every project we work on. And in many cases, the framework lives on long after the project is over.

What frameworks are and why we need them

A framework is the basic structure of something. It’s a set of ideas or facts that provide support for something. In the case of business problems, a framework creates the basic structure that gives focus and support to the problem you’re trying to solve.

Why is this necessary? Doesn’t the goal of the project provide a frame for solving it?

In a word, no. 🙂

Business problems are very unstructured. Some call them wicked problems. There are many variables and interdependent factors. Solutions aren’t clearly right or wrong–they are bad, good or better.

But we all grew up solving textbook problems. Our educational system, for the most part, presents problems in a structured manner. A textbook chapter introduces one or two new concepts, shows the problems they are used on, and demonstrates how to solve them. The end of the chapter has the same kinds of problems, structured in the same way for you to try.

We never knew how easy we had it!

Some business problems are textbook problems. Like operating the business you already have. You get the data, know what levers to pull, and you make the necessary adjustments.

But business problems aimed at innovation, growth or just serving your customers in new ways are wicked problems.

This is why you need a framework.

Conduct research to gather the content for your framework

A framework provides a set of ideas or facts for your project. But where do these ideas and facts come from?

They come from the research and immersion you do in your problem. Here’s how to get that done:

• Interview leaders in your organization to understand capabilities, direction of the company and how they think about the problem you’re working on.
• Spend time with your customers understanding their experience, what works well for them and what doesn’t work.
• Spend time researching the context of the problem: other solutions, technology, industry dynamics, and trends.

The collection of information and data from research are your raw materials. Use them to create a meaningful and useful framework.

Don’t skip this step! You must generate new information about your problem to create relevant and powerful frameworks.

Identify categories of information as the basis of your framework

So what is the basic content of a framework? In its simplest form, the foundation of a framework is a list of important categories.

You create the categories by analyzing the data you collected in your research.

Many times, your framework will focus on the customer and their needs. But a framework could also be about industry structure, the structure of a current service, or a major trend like the sharing economy.

As a quick example, let’s say you were working on a challenge in healthcare to reduce your re-admittance rate. (The number of patients who need repeat treatment after discharge.)

After analyzing your research, you identified “six areas of patient uncertainty after discharge from the hospital.” They include:

• Managing pain
• Taking medications
• Coordinating care among specialists
• Getting back to everyday life
• Financial concerns
• Emotional well-being

For each of these areas, you have real data from patients about the nature of the uncertainty. You know what questions and challenges they have in each area. And you have a sense of what role they play in factors that could lead to readmission.

This is great start for a framework! Notice that the content came from research. It also has a clear intent: communicate the dimensions of patient uncertainty. It is a simple, but effective, way to start understanding and focusing ideation on areas that matter to patients.

Organize the categories visually into a diagram

The second step in creating a good framework is to develop a way to represent the list visually. While a talented designer can add tremendous value to communication power of the framework, there are a number of simple ways to organize a list.

The first approach is to use a simple table. Put your category titles along the top and then use table cells below to organize the content in the categories. We create many frameworks that are nothing more than a nicely designed table.

But perhaps you know more about the relationships between categories. Maybe they overlap. In that case use a Venn diagram.

Sometimes the list of categories is arranged in sequence or by time. In this case, use a timeline! The timeline needn’t be calendar time, either. If the categories of information are from steps in the customer experience, use a Journey Map to display the information.

Organizing your list of categories into a visual form provides a more engaging way for others to understand and focus on the content.

It also plays another role. Because you are using two dimensions of the page, the visual representation literally reveals spaces that you should look at and consider if they mean something.

Use the framework to describe the problem and focus areas for ideation

Now that you have a framework, what is it good for? It’s great for sharing the results of your research. It provides a specific framing to help others quickly understand the nuances of the problem.

Any one of your category titles can become a section in a presentation where you go into detail of what’s happening and why.

You might even have a simple framework within one of these categories that helps organize how you present and talk about it.

A framework should also be used to focus areas of ideation and problem solving. In a collaborative workshop, breakout groups can each work on different areas of the framework. In the healthcare example above, one group might focus on ideas for addressing patients financial concerns while another group focuses ways for the patient to coordinate their care.

By using the framework to guide ideation, you get more ideas in each area of focus instead of lots of ideas that have to be sorted and organized among categories afterwards.

So remember, your framework should help present the research and framing of the project. And it should help focus problem solving in specific areas.

Start creating design frameworks to improve your team’s ability to solve complex problems

Business problems are not like textbook problems where everything is structured for you in advance. The first step in any project should be to research and frame the problem. This will help everyone understand the problem better before they begin ideation.

A design framework is a simple visual structure that helps organize the information and ideas of a problem so you can work on it more effectively.

A framework is often composed of a relevant list of categories. These categories are developed from initial research that should be a part of every new project. Focus your framework on an area that is relevant to possible solution directions for your problem.

Turn the list of categories into a visual form so that it is easier for others to understand and opens up new areas of inquiry for the project. The spaces in and around the framework may lead to moments of insight for you and your team.

Get started today!

Download our Design Frameworks how-to card for your own reference and to share with your team.


About Chris Conley

Chris was a founding partner of Gravitytank, an innovation firm that joined Salesforce in 2016.  A former tenured professor at IIT's Institute of Design in Chicago, he is now an innovator-at-large.

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