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Getting the Most out of Frameworks

When we tackle a new design challenge, we are constantly faced with making sense of new domains, complex information, and huge data sets – in a very short amount of time. Imagine trying to understand how to help diabetes patients better manage their care.

Frameworks can be used as tools to understand complex problems such as these because they:

  • Allow us to quickly organize and broaden our thinking about complex problems
  • Provide a starting point to leverage rich work from other fields of study
  • Force us to focus on the most important point of what we want to communicate
  • Are visual in nature, making information easier to comprehend and remember.

Using frameworks to broaden our thinking

Frameworks help us during the initial ‘understanding’ phase of the design process to architect our research. For example, when exploring the space of diabetes management, we have used the POEMS framework (People, Objects, Environments, Messages, and Services)1 to define our research questions. Using the framework’s categories provides a gut-check against our research questions and ensures we’re investigating the space broadly enough.

Tip: Apply several different frameworks to ensure breadth. It’s better to go wide in the investigation phase and then later narrow based on priority or knowledge gaps exist later. 

Using frameworks to organize and analyze insights  

Using frameworks can also allow us to organize insights as we collect them. As designers, we often suffer from information overload, so using a framework like NOABS (Needs, Objectives, Activities, Breakdowns, and Solutions)2 can help us cull through massive amounts of information and pre-categorize insights so we can see early patterns.

Tip: It’s important to pick the right framework. If one doesn’t seem to fit, add to it, or modify it so that it does.

Tip: Once you start conducting the research, be willing to modify your collection framework. If categories are becoming unbalanced or underused, it is time to break them up and add new categories or sublevels to the framework.

The same framework used to collect and organize insights is a good starting point for analysis. Clustering within each category is a good way to identify initial patterns. In this way, the framework serves as scaffolding to reveal insights. Equally important, is to remove the framework altogether when doing an analysis. This allows us to discover insights that naturally occur without the preset categories.

Tip:  Although using a framework strengthens insight generation and keeps insights on track, it can also increase sensitivity to notice particular occurrences. That is why it is really important to re-cluster and sort using both techniques. 

Using frameworks to assess opportunities

Probably the most well-known frameworks are those used for business strategy, like SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats)3. This type of framework provides a common structure for measuring the strategy, position, and direction of a company or idea against. More importantly, this type of framework provides a common way to discuss and compare companies against each other so that business decisions can be made confidently.

Tip: When using a framework to make a decision, it’s crucial to ensure that you are working with the right information; the final decision is only as good as the information that goes into it. So, spend time collecting information about the subject before having a group SWOT analysis. 

Using frameworks to generate ideas

Idea generation is a key benefit to the use of frameworks. Models like PEST (Political, Economic, Social and Technological)4 encourage us to generate new ideas while taking our current context into consideration. For example, we know that currently, Americans are still averse to spending due to the continuing economic instability. When generating ideas around improving diabetes management, we can focus our brainstorming around ideas that don’t require buying new care products, but rather utilize products being used in innovative ways.

Tip: Think of factors within each category of PEST or other frameworks as stimuli for brainstorming. They should be used in conjunction with other stimuli, not as a replacement.

Using frameworks to communicate complex information

A framework is an effective way to communicate complex information. By simplifying to a single illustration, we are forced to focus on the essence of the information and emphasize only what is most important to communicate. The sheer exercise of creating the framework makes us, as designers, think deeply about what’s most important to communicate.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle of technology adoption4 is an example of a successful framework designed to help us understand a complex problem: how a technology will evolve over time. Its success is evidenced by the fact that it’s easy to remember and understand, and is used repeatedly to explain the lifecycle of a range of emerging technologies.

Tip: It’s not easy to illustrate complex information in a framework. Once you think you have a good first stab, bring others in who are unfamiliar with the area. Ask them to explain your illustration to see if it matches what you intended. This is a quick way to poke holes at your visualization and improve it.

Final words

Like any tool, make sure that you don’t overly rely on any one particular framework. Testing a variety of frameworks will help you to think, plan and make decisions more efficiently. And, at the end of the day, remember that frameworks are merely a starting point and still require you to modify according to the problem you’re tackling.

When used correctly, frameworks can be used for all sorts of decisions and activities throughout the design process.


  1. POEMS framework developed by Developed by Patrick Whitney and Vijay Kumar at the IIT Institute of Design
  2. NOABS framework developed by Jeremy Alexis at the IIT Institute of Design
  3. SWOT framework developed by Edmund P. Learned, C. Roland Christiansen, Kenneth Andrews, and William D. Guth
  4. It is unknown who developed the PEST framework