A while back on cph127 Adam Richardson of frog raised the issue of wicked problems. Iâ€™m really glad he brought it up because Iâ€™ve always felt they are central to design as a professional practice. Curiously though there isnâ€™t much talk in design circles about them.
In “Making Use,” John Carroll offers one of the most lucid descriptions of wicked problems Iâ€˜ve seen. To oversimplify him for clarityâ€™s sake, wicked problems are those whose end solution states are unknowable at the outset.
For example a jigsaw puzzle is not a wicked problem. The end state is printed right there on the box top. Achieving that end state is an entirely tactical matter. Rapid trail and error seems good way to learn the puzzleâ€™s internal rules. Once the rules are learned the puzzle is easily and solved.
On the other hand, “we need a new tool to help improve our call center repsâ€™ productivity” is a wicked problem because the end solution state, the real root problems and their causal connections are unknown at the beginning.
This suggests that to call design a problem solving endeavour (as Iâ€™m fond of doing) is actually quite inadequate. Much of human activity, after all, is problem solving. So to be meaningful, we need to get a lot more specific: professional designâ€™s main value is in solving wicked problems.
In my mind there are three general strategies in dealing with wickedness: mitigation, improvisation, and shot gun (Iâ€™m not sure these are the best labels).
In my experience the most common product development strategy is a whole lotta shot gun (with surprisingly little shot), mixed with a heap of improvisation (with woefully inadequate talent) and just a smattering of mitigation (with the caveat that this cannot impact schedule or budget).
Richardson seems to agree with this approach to wickedness, saying “[t]he only way to really understand the problem is by devising solutions and seeing how they further knowledge about the problem.” In other words, a shotgun is your only weapon again wickedness. According to van der Heijden in Scenarios this is the product development version of a strategic planning evolutionary paradigm (p.31 in case you’re interested).
To me this isn’t quite right because neither improvisation nor shotgun are sufficiently sustainable or repeatable to form the basis of a solid product innovation method. Leading with mitigation strategies, however, followed closely by shotgun strategies and improvisation capabilities promises much more consistent returns.
Letâ€™s walk through the logic (again, oversimplified to clarity) of this backwards.
How do we mitigate wickedness?
By developing an appropriate vision of an optimal solution end state.
How do we do that?
By clearly focusing on the actual root causes of the problems being experienced, and using them as a mirror to reflect what optimal solution end states could and should look like.
How do we do that?
By discovering the right questions to askâ€”clarity is easy once youâ€™re armed with the right questions.
How do we do that?
By closely studying and modeling users and/or customers, the pain they experience, their coping activities and their varied contexts.
(After writing this I was struck by its similarity to the designer as physician diagram below. I didnâ€™t do this intentionallyâ€¦ really)
Now letâ€™s walk though it forwards. We start with a clientâ€™s painful negative experience. No one knows how to alleviate this pain; if someone did, this wouldnâ€™t be a wicked problem, it would be a puzzleâ€”and so you would need an engineer and not a designer.
We then begin to study the painful experience, who experiences it and how. This starts to reveal the right questions we need to ask and the right areas we need to dig into deeper. Asking the right questions in turn starts to reveal the root causes that are driving the symptomatic pains the client came to us to solve in the first place.
With a clearer picture of the root problems and their causal connections we can realistically start to envision appropriate solution end states. The wickedness isnâ€™t gone, but weâ€™ve mitigated it, its no longer quite to so wicked. Not only have we reduced the wickedness, but weâ€™ve also dramatically improved the speed and effectiveness of our shotgun and improvisation strategies and tactics.