Wicked Problems

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What are Wicked Problems?

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.

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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 immediate test 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.

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Questions related to Wicked Problems

Is poverty a wicked problem?

Yes, poverty is a wicked problem. 

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As Don Norman elucidates in this video, wicked problems refer to challenges that are hard to define and address due to their complex nature, much like complex socio-technical systems. Like the example of world peace Norman mentions, poverty possesses multifaceted roots and impacts, making solutions elusive. Tackling such issues doesn't guarantee permanent resolution. However, it's crucial to understand that even if we can't wholly eradicate problems like poverty, continuously striving for improvements and bettering lives is the way forward. While wicked problems persist, consistent advancement in addressing them represents success.

Is climate change a wicked problem?

Indeed, climate change exemplifies a wicked problem. As Don Norman elucidates in this video, the complexities of climate systems, human activity, ecology, and their interconnectedness pose challenges in understanding and addressing the issue.

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The non-linear nature of these systems, intertwined with feedback loops and feed-forward loops, adds to the intricacy. Moreover, people's simplistic causality models hinder recognizing multifaceted causes and delayed consequences. While many often resist change, especially those benefiting from the status quo, the palpable effects of climate change—fires, floods, famine, and extreme weather events—are now evident worldwide. Although historically, we've been reactive, responding post-calamity, the tangible repercussions of climate change have catalyzed a global response, providing a glimmer of optimism for the future.

Is healthcare a wicked problem?

Yes, healthcare is a wicked problem. Addressing healthcare issues often involves navigating complex, interconnected systems that require multi-faceted approaches. In Don Norman's video, he speaks about incrementalism, where tackling significant challenges is done step by step. 

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Securing funding for incremental steps in healthcare can be challenging; yet, taking massive leaps can lead to inflexibility and risk. Borrowing concepts from software development, Norman presents three strategies that can be applied:

  1. Incrementalism: Address healthcare challenges in small, adaptable steps, ensuring each move is in the right direction.

  2. Minimum Viable Project (MVP): Borrowed from Agile programming, it's about creating small, functional segments of the larger solution. This method ensures that each part, even if small, is working effectively.

  3. Object-Oriented Approach: Here, the focus is on the inputs and outputs of a system, not the internal process. This modular design allows for flexibility and adaptation as healthcare needs and methods evolve.

How to solve a wicked problem?

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According to HCI expert Alan Dix, understanding the difference between puzzles and real-world problems is crucial. Puzzles have a single correct solution with all the necessary information provided. However, wicked problems inherent to real-world scenarios are not as clearly defined as puzzles. They may not have a definite  answer and may even be insoluble in their initial form. The primary step is deeply understanding the problem, as solutions may become evident once fully grasped. Indeed, there's a saying, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions." Thus, investing time in understanding, redefining, and negotiating the problem can pave the way to practical solutions. In the realm of wicked problems, creative thinking and individualized approaches are paramount.

What are wicked problems in design thinking?

In design thinking, wicked problems refer to complex challenges that lack clear solutions or boundaries. Unlike puzzles, which have a definitive answer, wicked problems are unique, possess no classic formulation, and their potential solutions are non-enumerable. The complexity arises from the interconnectedness of factors and the inability to use a prior solution for a new problem. These problems often require creative, individualized approaches and deep understanding for effective resolution. As detailed in this article on the history of Design Thinking  on interaction-design.org, design thinking as a methodology emphasizes empathy, iteration, and collaboration, making it aptly suited to address wicked problems by redefining and understanding them from various perspectives.

What are examples of wicked problems?
  1. Climate Change: Addressing the causes and impacts of global warming involves balancing the needs of various nations, industries, and populations. Solutions can have unintended consequences, and only some answers satisfy all stakeholders.

  2. Healthcare: Ensuring affordable, high-quality healthcare for all is a complex issue with economics, politics, and individual health needs.

  3. Poverty and Economic Inequality: Addressing the root causes and alleviating the effects of poverty require multifaceted solutions involving education, job creation, health services, and more.

  4. Urban Planning and Housing: Balancing the needs for housing, transportation, green spaces, and commercial areas in rapidly growing urban areas is a constantly evolving challenge.

  5. Global Terrorism: Addressing the root causes and responding to the effects of terrorism involves considerations of international relations, religion, socio-economic factors, and security concerns.

  6. Water Scarcity: Ensuring adequate, clean water for all involves a mix of technological, environmental, political, and social solutions.

  7. Food Security: Ensuring everyone has access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food involves considerations of agriculture, trade policies, climate change, and socio-economic disparities.

  8. Immigration and Refugees: Managing migration and addressing the needs of refugees requires balancing national security, economic interests, humanitarian concerns, and social integration.

  9. Education Reform: Ensuring quality education for all, adapting to technological changes, and preparing students for a rapidly changing world is a multifaceted challenge.

  10. Biodiversity Loss: Protecting endangered species and habitats in the face of urban development, climate change, and other pressures is a complex, ongoing struggle.

These are just a few examples, and many other problems could qualify as "wicked" given the proper context and scale. The hallmark of wicked problems is that they can't be solved with linear, traditional problem-solving methods and require a more holistic, adaptive, and iterative approach.

What is a wicked problem in leadership?

Wicked problem in leadership refers to challenges that leaders face, which are complex, multifaceted, and often resist straightforward solutions. These problems often arise from various factors, including human behavior, organizational dynamics, external pressures, and evolving circumstances. Addressing such issues requires a leader to navigate ambiguity, adapt to changing contexts, and collaborate with diverse stakeholders. Here are some examples of wicked problems specific to leadership:

  1. Organizational Culture Change: Changing the ingrained culture of an organization is a long-term process filled with resistance, unexpected challenges, and the need for continuous adaptation. A leader might have a vision for a more innovative or inclusive culture, but translating that vision into tangible changes in behavior, systems, and practices is a wicked problem.

  2. Digital Transformation: In an era of rapid technological change, leaders face the wicked problem of ensuring their organizations adapt and innovate while maintaining core functions and managing potential disruptions.

  3. Ethical Dilemmas: Leaders sometimes face decisions without clear, correct answers, and various ethical principles might conflict. These dilemmas involve privacy, data security, team member rights, or corporate social responsibility.

  4. Stakeholder Management: Leaders in complex organizations must manage a web of stakeholders, each with distinct interests, priorities, and expectations. Balancing the needs of employees, shareholders, customers, regulators, and the broader community is a constant challenge.

  5. Crisis Management: Responding to unforeseen crises, be they financial, reputational, or operational, requires leaders to make quick decisions with limited information, all while managing internal and external perceptions.

Are wicked problems good or bad?

Wicked problems are complex challenges that defy straightforward solutions. While they are inherently complex and can be perceived as 'bad' due to their complexity and often represent negative scenarios, they also present opportunities for innovation and deep understanding. Addressing wicked problems often requires a blend of systems thinking and agile approaches. This article on Interaction Design Foundation delves into a 5-step method to tackle wicked problems, combining systems thinking with agile methodology. Therefore, while wicked problems are challenging, they can lead to significant growth and insights when approached effectively.

Where to learn more about wicked problems?

Want to explore wicked problems further? Dive into our 21st Century Design course to uncover modern design challenges and solutions. For a deep dive into design's impact on global issues, explore Design for a Better World. Both courses empower you with tools to navigate wicked problems in design.

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Literature on Wicked Problems

Here’s the entire UX literature on Wicked Problems by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Wicked Problems

Take a deep dive into Wicked Problems with our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?

Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.

The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.

Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.

That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight them on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or your website.

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