1. Start with the need

This standard links to two Principles for Digital Development: Design with the User and Understanding the Existing Ecosystem.

Building something that is not needed is the most significant risk in digital. Most technology startups and products fail. This is not because the technology doesn’t work.

It’s because they have built something that people don’t need or can’t use. 

By understanding the needs of real people, UNDP can ensure that we do not make this mistake. More of our projects will have a real and lasting impact.

Don’t start with a solution or technology and then search for a way to use it. Start with a clear understanding of the challenge you address. Understand your intended user’s needs, context, and technology constraints.   

Only then,  focus on solutions that address the problem. There’s no such thing as a perfect problem statement, but there are definitely good and bad examples. A good problem statement should be clear, concise, and specific. It should be achievable and relevant to your company or organization. On the other hand, a bad problem statement can be vague, overly ambitious, or simply irrelevant. 

It can also be too specific, making it impossible to solve. If you're not sure whether your problem statement is good or bad, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is the problem statement clear and concise?
  2. Is the problem statement specific?
  3. Is the problem statement achievable?
  4. Is the problem statement relevant?

Here are two examples of problem statements:

  • Bad: Slow humanitarian response after earthquakes
  • Good:  Humanitarian community lacks on the ground information at the start of a humanitarian crisis because of limited and infrastructure communication networks. The implications are slower response and a lack of coordinated effort.

You cannot understand user needs in isolation by sitting in meetings and debating. Someone needs to speak, early and often, to the precise set of people who experience the problem and those already trying to solve the problem.

A significant amount of qualitative insights will emerge based on these conversations.  

Be careful not to put too much significance on the potential solutions at this point. People often do not know the scope of available solutions, and you could be side-tracked.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Henry Ford

The priority is to create alignment around the problem definition at this stage. Everyone on your team should understand and be able to articulate the problem(s) and unmet needs. Why is the problem worth solving?

The better your understanding of the problem and the users, the more likely you will create an impactful solution. 



  • Interview at least 5 people who directly experience the problem. Make sure your questions are not biased.
  • Experience the problem first-hand — where possible. 
  • Write a clear Problem Statement to frame the problem. 
  • Use quantitative research, where possible, to measure the magnitude of a problem. This type of research can help you determine whether the problem you are trying to solve impacts enough people. If it doesn't, then you might need to rethink your approach.
  • Understand users’ technology constraints (smartphone use, cost, availability of internet, digital literacy, network infrastructure, etc.)
  • Create User Journeys that show how things are currently done.
  • List and prioritize the current pain points. 
  • Review previously attempted solutions
  • When working with the government, ensure solutions are co-created.


  • Build digital products or services without confirming real end-user needs.
  • Ask leading questions during interviews. 
  • Rely purely on third-party research on the problem.
  • Start by writing a list of business requirements or system functionalities
  • Start with technology in mind and look for a solution.
  • Let interviewees tell you the precise solution they need. 
  • Only speak with proxies or representatives of those who experience the problem.
  • Only speak to people at the start. Understanding needs is an ongoing process.



UN Resources

  • Data Futures Platform: Find data and insights to support your research on the Data Futures Platform
  • IOM Communication for Development Toolkit: Practical guidance for strengthening ongoing information awareness campaigns and related outreach through the application of Communication for Development (C4D). Step 1 knowing your audience gives you tools and case studies to apply the first Digital Standard. 
  • UNICEF toolkit for design services: UNICEF tools you can use to apply the human-centred approach to challenges around health services.


To Watch 


To Read 


Case Studies.

  • Six steps for adapting your design solutions to the right context  In a workshop about defining challenges to develop solutions, the UNHCR Innovation Service was asked how to design for context to make an impact. They mapped out six steps that you can use to help you define challenges, understand needs, and take participatory approaches.