Wicked Problems User Experience (UX) topic overview/definition

Wicked Problems: Concept Definition

Wicked problems are problems with many interdependent factors making them seem impossible to solve. Because the factors are often incomplete, in flux, and difficult to define, solving wicked problems requires a deep understanding of the stakeholders involved, and an innovative approach provided by design thinking. Complex issues such as healthcare and education are examples of wicked problems.

The term “wicked problem” was first coined by Horst Rittel, design theorist and professor of design methodology at the Ulm School of Design, Germany. In the paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” he describes ten characteristics of wicked problems:

  1. There is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule, as in there’s no way to know your solution is final.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false; they can only be good-or-bad.
  4. There is no immediatetest of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have a set number of potential solutions.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
  9. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem because the explanations vary greatly depending on the individual perspective.
  10. Planners/designers have no right to be wrong and must be fully responsible for their actions.

Design theorist and academic Richard Buchanan connected design thinking to wicked problems in his 1992 paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design thinking’s iterative process is extremely useful in tackling ill-defined or unknown problems—reframing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing.

For your convenience, we’ve collected all UX literature that deals with Wicked Problems. Here’s the full list: