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Framework-First Design: A Scalable Approach to Problem Solving

In the realm of design and problem-solving, various methodologies have been adopted over the years. One such approach that we have developed recently is the concept of 'Framework-First Design.' Drawing inspiration from iterative methodologies and design principles, this method focuses on building a base framework based on a single piece or focused area of a larger problem, and then evolving the framework so it acts as a guide to address the remaining facets of the challenge. The flowchart below provides a visual representation of the process, which we'll delve into in this article.

At its core, the Framework-First Design aims to break down a multifaceted problem into more manageable chunks. By starting with a single piece of the puzzle (referred to as "Subject Zero" in the image), designers can derive a foundational method or framework. This foundation then becomes the basis for addressing other elements of the problem.

The Process

1. Research

Begin by extensively researching the problem at hand, and ways to solve it. Gather data, insights, and understand the larger context. An effective research process can greatly inform and guide the subsequent steps of the design process.

  • Understand the Objective: What are you hoping to achieve? Are you looking for a broad understanding of the problem, or are you focusing on specific facets? Define clear research objectives

  • Review literature: Begin by exploring existing literature on the subject. This includes industry reports, articles, methodology and case studies. Establish what is already known and identifies any gaps in the existing knowledge.

  • Interview Stakeholders: Engage with key stakeholders involved in the problem. Their insights can provide invaluable context, identify pain points, and highlight potential solutions. This could include users, business stakeholders, or anyone impacted by the problem.

  • Collect Data: Depending on the nature of the problem, gather relevant data. This could be quantitative data (like analytics or statistics) or qualitative data (like user feedback or anecdotal evidence).

  • Analyse Competitors: Examine how others, especially competitors or analogous industries, have addressed similar problems. This can uncover effective strategies, tools, or methodologies.

  • Study ethnographically: Observing users or stakeholders in their natural environment can offer deep insights into their behaviors, challenges, and needs. This method is especially useful when designing for specific user experiences or processes.

  • Document everything: As you gather information, it's essential to document your findings meticulously. This not only ensures that valuable insights aren't lost but also aids in analysis later on. Create Visual Representations like charts, graphs, or mind maps to visually represent complex data or relationships. This can make it easier to identify patterns or insights.

The goal of the research phase isn't just to gather data but to achieve a holistic understanding of the problem in its larger context. This means recognizing the interconnectedness of various facets, understanding underlying causes, and anticipating potential ripple effects of solutions.

2. SME Review

Engage Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to review the findings from the research phase. Their expertise can offer valuable insights and guide the initial design.

3.Tackle Subject Zero

With the knowledge acquired, embark on solving a specific piece of the larger problem. You can pick this piece based on priority, breadth of scope or ease of solving:

  • Stakeholder Impact: Choose a piece that, when addressed, would have the most significant impact on key stakeholders. This could mean selecting a segment that affects the largest user base or a critical business process.

  • Resource Availability: If certain resources – whether they are specific tools, skills, or team members – are readily available, it might make sense to select a piece that can best utilize these resources effectively.

  • Urgency: Address a part of the problem that is time-critical. If there are deadlines or external factors at play, it might be practical to start with the piece that needs immediate attention.

  • Visibility and Showcase Potential: Pick a piece that, once completed, can be showcased to gain buy-in from stakeholders or to demonstrate the value of the overall project. This might be a segment with a tangible or visible outcome.

  • Dependencies: If some parts of the problem are foundational and other segments are dependent on them, it's logical to start with these foundational pieces.

  • Feedback Potential: Start by solving a piece that can provide the most valuable feedback when prototyped or tested. This might be a segment with diverse user interactions or varied use-cases.

  • Risk Mitigation: If there are parts of the problem that are deemed high-risk, it might be beneficial to address these early on. Early resolution can prevent potential roadblocks or setbacks later in the project.

  • Alignment with Strategic Goals: Choose a piece that aligns closely with the organization's current strategic goals or vision. This ensures that the effort is in sync with broader organizational objectives.

  • Complexity: This is a tricky one. Sometimes, starting with the most complex segment can provide a deep understanding that makes solving subsequent parts easier. Conversely, beginning with the simplest segment can provide quick wins and momentum.

The chosen approach for selecting "Subject Zero" will largely depend on the specific context, goals, and constraints of the project. The key is to ensure that the chosen segment provides valuable insights and learnings that can inform the broader effort.

The outcome of this phase is a reference design or prototype.

4.Derive Framework

Analyze the process, tools, and methods employed in addressing Subject Zero. From this, extract a framework or methodology that can potentially be applied to other facets of the problem.

  • Document Everything: Start by meticulously documenting every step, tool, strategy, and decision made during the 'Subject Zero' phase. This creates a repository of information that aids in the extraction process.

  • Identify Patterns: Look for recurring themes, strategies, and solutions. Patterns indicate tried and tested methods that can potentially be generalized and applied across multiple contexts.

  • Articulate the Framework: Begin to structure and outline the framework. This might involve grouping similar strategies, defining key principles, and establishing a sequential or modular approach.

  • Test the Framework's Universality: While the framework is derived from a specific example, it should be adaptable. Test its flexibility by hypothetically applying it to another part of the problem or a different challenge altogether.

  • Engage Stakeholders: Share the preliminary framework with key stakeholders, team members, and SMEs. Gather their input to ensure that the framework is comprehensive, adaptable, and robust.

5.Iteration & Feedback

As the framework is applied to other subjects or pieces, there's an opportunity to learn and refine. The initial framework may not be perfect, and as new challenges arise, there's a chance to iterate and improve upon it. With every iteration, feedback must be gathered, analyzed, and incorporated. This continuous improvement cycle ensures that the framework remains relevant and effective.

See it in action: Gogul's Practical Application of Framework-First Design

Journey mapping is a complex task, and when faced with the challenge of creating multiple maps for the KYC initiative at Foundational Platform, Gogul, a designer on my team, took a systematic approach.

​Gogul R G

Lead Designer


The Beginning

Gogul started by researching existing methods for journey mapping. With a range of options available, he opted for an approach tailored to his needs, choosing a product he was familiar with for his first map.

Feedback Loop

Before proceeding further, Gogul sought feedback on his chosen method. He discussed his preliminary approach with stakeholders and also consulted with Kristina, an expert researcher, to ensure he was on the right track.

First Map Creation

Using the feedback and his initial research, Gogul developed his first journey map, ensuring he documented the process. This documentation later served as the foundational framework for his subsequent maps.

Iteration and Refinement

As he proceeded to create journey maps for more products, Gogul encountered certain challenges. These became opportunities for him to iterate on and refine his initial framework.

Sharing with the Org

After completing several journey maps and making adjustments to his framework, Gogul shared it with the organization, making it accessible for others to use. His journey map framework was approved and published on athenahealth’s intranet section go/research maintained by DesignOps team.

Community Contribution

A few months after publishing, Gogul noticed that other members of the organization had adopted and even made some enhancements to the framework, demonstrating its practicality and adaptability.

User Journey Map Framework

Gogul's approach showcases the practical application of the Framework-First Design. By starting small, seeking feedback, and being open to iteration, he developed a tool that benefitted not just his projects, but also the wider organization.

See It in Action: Vignesh's Approach to Streamlining Clinical Messaging

When tasked with the challenge of addressing fragmented communication in the clinical workflows of athenahealth clients, Vignesh adopted a methodical approach. Given the current scenario where multiple communication channels were being used inconsistently, his goal was to minimize this fragmentation across at least 20 workflows.

Vignesh Prabhu Natarajan Rajasekara

Principal Designer


Starting Point

Instead of diving headfirst into all the workflows, Vignesh strategically chose to focus on a single workflow: 'referral management'. His objective was to deeply understand this workflow and derive foundational principles that could potentially be applied to others.

Collaboration and Testing

Vignesh recognized the importance of collective wisdom. To ensure the relevancy and feasibility of his approach, he maintained ongoing collaboration between his team and the clinical team. Moreover, he incorporated feedback from end customers through regular testing sessions, validating the real-world applicability of his strategies.

From One to Many

Once Vignesh felt confident about the principles derived from the 'referral management' workflow, he began applying them to other workflows. This wasn't a static process. As he delved into different workflows, he found opportunities to refine and iterate upon his initial set of principles.

Long-Term Vision

While the task at hand is substantial, Vignesh is committed to the long game. Over the next couple of years, he plans to methodically address multiple workflows, always iterating and refining his approach based on insights from each one.

T-shaped Design Framework

T-shaped Design Framework used for Communication

Vignesh's approach to the challenge at hand exemplifies the power of starting with a focused, singular effort and using the insights gained to address broader challenges. Through continuous collaboration, testing, and iteration, he's on a path to significantly enhance the efficiency and coherence of clinical messaging for athenahealth clients.

Benefits of Framework-First Design


By establishing a foundational framework early on, it becomes easier to address new facets of the problem without starting from scratch.


A shared framework ensures uniformity in the design process and outcomes.


Over time, as the framework gets refined, the design process becomes faster and more streamlined.


The framework provides a common language and approach, fostering better teamwork and collaboration.

Brand Building

By sharing your knowledge and publishing your framework, you build your personal brand as a subject matter expert.


Here is the downloadable version for quick reference:

Framework-first Design


The Framework-First Design approach provides a systematic and scalable method for tackling complex problems. By starting with a single example, deriving a framework, and then applying it iteratively to other aspects of the challenge, designers can navigate the intricacies with clarity and consistency. As with any methodology, it's crucial to remain open to feedback and continuously refine the framework to ensure its effectiveness.


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