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Reframe vs. Define: What’s the Difference?

Early on in my journey of learning about Design Thinking, I remember hearing Reframe and Define used seemingly interchangeably. I was so confused. If they’re the same, why don’t we just choose one and stick with it? Was it simply that one school started using Reframe and another started using Define, so they just created this confusion? Well, sort of, but not really.

There is a difference between the two. Yes, it is true that Stanford introduced Define into the system, but in some sense, they needed to. To fit with their methodology for using DT, Reframe didn’t really fit all that well. As a result, they… uh, well… reframed it.

Typically, when we leverage the DT process, we already have a challenge that we’re facing. After all, that’s why we came to DT in the first place. We start with a challenge statement, which guides our Empathy questions/statements targeted at our end-users, extreme users and customers. Once we have acquired the necessary Empathy, we use it as a filter to look back at our original challenge statement. It causes that original challenge statement to look differently. The challenge, as we see it, now becomes the challenge that our end-users are facing that cause the response we experience. By solving this new Reframe, we will address the challenge from the EU’s perspective. This is the traditional method of using “Reframe.”

There is, however, one more important characteristic to consider: Reactive. Because you’re starting with a challenge (i.e. Challenge Statement), your process is Reactive in its nature to an already existing challenge. We’ll touch more on this later.

Characteristics of a Reframe:

1. Starts with a Challenge Statement

2. A reevaluation of a challenge statement through the lens of Empathy

3. Reactive

Define, however, is quite different from Reframe although it serves a similar purpose. There is a time that organizations need to stop dealing with the immediate challenges in front of them and consider what new opportunities might be out there. You might say, “What challenge could we discover that our end-user is experiencing and solve for it?” This approach is unique. You want to find… discover… an opportunity. To do this, you start at the same place as you do if you were using Reframe… namely, Empathy.

Your questions when using the Define approach are much more ambiguous. You don’t have a predetermined line of questioning around a topic. You simply go to discover what you can. It takes considerable patience and an excellent ability to interrupt and coalesce the data. When done right, it can be remarkably insightful; producing a great opportunity that can give you the leading edge in your industry.

Naturally then, this makes Define proactive. Because you’re deliberately trying to anticipate challenges that may come for you or your end-users, you’re getting ahead of the game. You’re not responding to something currently plaguing you, but rather address the future. Once you do that, you bring your learnings together into a statement of identification. Your team will clearly know what they’ve learning from the Empathy and will have put it into a concise, inspiring statement to move the group towards Ideation.

Characteristics of a Define:

1. No Challenge Statement

2. The discovery of an opportunity or challenge through the lens of Empathy

3. Proactive

I want to make it clear that there is a time and a place for both Reframe and Define. We need both. We need to address the real challenges we’re facing – Reframe does that for us. But we also need to consider what opportunities there may be for us in the future, or what challenges may be heading our way – Define accomplishes these.

I hope this brings some clarity to you as it was something that frustrated me for quite some time. Having been deep in this space for quite some time now, I’m just finally beginning to recognize the benefits and detriments to both. They’re both needed. They should both be utilized. Wielded together, they will set you up for a successful future having addressed the issues of today and anticipated the opportunities of tomorrow.


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