How to Apply Design Thinking to Wicked Problems

CareerFoundry Blog contributor John Cheung

A large part of a UX designer’s job is solving problems. In fact, the wide range of principles and mindsets employed by designers can be applicable beyond the realm of design itself.

Enter wicked problems. Essentially, these are problems in the world which prove incredibly difficult to solve, due to a complicated web of factors. How to tackle them has always been one of the great challenges.

Because good design is human-centered, designers are excellently positioned to help. So where did this concept come from, and how can Design Thinking help? Let’s find out.

First, we’re going to start by looking at where the term “wicked problems” first came from. We’ll then look at what makes up a wicked problem, and go through some examples. Lastly, we’ll look at how wicked problems and Design Thinking interact and how you can apply them to UX design.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, simply use the clickable menu:

  1. Where did wicked problems come from?
  2. Characteristics of a wicked problem
  3. Examples of wicked problems
  4. What is Design Thinking?
  5. Applying Design Thinking to wicked problems
  6. Final thoughts

1. Where did wicked problems come from?

Professor Horst W. J. Rittel, a design theorist from Berlin, coined the term “wicked problems” way back in 1973. 

Rittel was investigating how to tackle complex social policy problems in societies. He recognized that some of these problems shared characteristics that made them extremely difficult to solve, and he called these “wicked problems.”  

Wicked problems are:

  • Unique and novel
  • Difficult or impossible to solve
  • Characterized by incomplete factors and complex interdependencies
  • Subject to contradictory evidence
  • Dependent on multiple stakeholders, often with conflicting interests

2. Characteristics of a wicked problem

In his paper, Professor Rittel also outlined the ten characteristics of a wicked problem:

  1. There is no definitive formula
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule—there’s no way to know your solution is final
  3. Solutions 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’s no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly
  6. Wicked problems don’t 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

Now that we’ve looked at the definition and characteristics of wicked problems, let’s examine a few real-world issues to see if they meet the criteria to be described as a wicked problem.

3. Examples of wicked problems

The term “wicked problems” was first coined in the context of public policy, and so—perhaps unsurprisingly—many complex social problems prove to be wicked ones.

Let’s take a look at three real-world issues and see if they meet the criteria for a wicked problem.

1. Global heating

Is it unique and / or novel?

Yes—it is unique in the sense that we don’t face any problems similar to global heating as a whole. However, it has been talked about since at least the 1980s, so it is no longer a novel problem.

Is it difficult or impossible to solve?

Yes—it is certainly difficult to solve. Whether or not it is impossible to solve remains to be seen.

Is it characterized by incomplete factors and / or complex interdependencies?

Yes—an example of an incomplete factor is the potential unavailability of reliable data about how much any country has reduced its CO2 emissions, due to the political, economic, and social pressure to show significant reductions.

Is it subject to contradictory evidence?

The scientific consensus that the climate is warming and this is being caused by humans is not subject to contradictory evidence to any significant degree—as of 2019, 99% of the scientific evidence supported it.

However, there is contradictory evidence regarding potential solutions, the pros and cons of nuclear energy being one.  

Is it dependent on multiple stakeholders with different interests?

Yes—not only do individual nations, groups of nations, industries, and unions have different interests, each of those contains multiple stakeholders with different agendas and interests, such as political parties, lobby groups, think-tanks, big business, etc.

Is it a wicked problem?

Yes—global heating clearly meets four of the five criteria to be classified as a wicked problem.

And some of the solutions suggested are subject to contradictory evidence, even if there is scientific consensus around the nature of the problem.

2. Homelessness

Is it unique and / or novel?

No—although the details of every city’s homelessness situation will vary, the causes and effects will overlap to the extent that the problem could not be described as unique.

And homelessness has been documented since 1383 and probably much earlier, so it is not a novel problem. 

Is it difficult or impossible to solve?

That depends. It is probably impossible or nearly impossible to solve for societies that don’t have the financial means to provide state-funded housing.

However, some wealthier cities such as Helsinki have taken radical approaches that have all but eradicated rough-sleeping, if not homelessness.

Is it characterized by incomplete factors and / or complex interdependencies?

Yes and no—the causes of homelessness are generally understood, so incomplete factors wouldn’t apply.

Conversely, somewhat complex interdependencies do exist when tackling homelessness at city or individual level, because the functioning, legislation, and definitions of the city or national governments; housing officers, social workers, the homeless individuals themselves, and their families can all potentially contribute to the outcome.

Is it subject to contradictory evidence?

Generally no—most of the main solutions applied to reduce homelessness are evidence-based.

Is it dependent on multiple stakeholders with different interests?

Yes—tackling homelessness at a city level requires sustained government support and commitment, which means multiple stakeholder involvement.

As well as that, most approaches would require cooperation with stakeholders such as social services, landlords, charities, and healthcare professionals. 

Is it a wicked problem?

Overall, homelessness is not a wicked problem. Although it is dependent on multiple stakeholders with different interests, it is neither a unique nor a novel problem.

There are proven methods to tackling homelessness and eradicating or almost eradicating it is possible with the right resources and strategy.

3. Turning around a long-term chronically underperforming school

Is it unique and / or novel?

No—similar to homelessness, although each underperforming school’s situation will be unique, the causes and effects of many will overlap so they could not be described as unique in any meaningful way.

Some underperforming schools will have been failing since mass education began, so it cannot be described as a novel problem, either.

Is it difficult or impossible to solve?

Yes—it is likely that it is at least difficult to turn around an underperforming school in an economically deprived area and—in the worst cases and depending on the resources available—it might be impossible.

Is it characterized by incomplete factors and / or complex interdependencies?

Yes—long-term school underperformance is characterized by complex interdependencies between national and local educational, economic, and social policies.

As well as this, multiple interdependent causes and symptoms could be at play, such as:

  • health issues
  • absenteeism
  • lack of study space
  • lack of trusted adult relationships
  • lack of youth services
  • substance abuse
  • neglect
  • poverty
  • malnutrition
  • language barriers
  • gang membership

Is it subject to contradictory evidence?

Yes—there is contradictory evidence as to which approaches and solutions are most likely to succeed in turning around a chronically underperforming school.

Is it dependent on multiple stakeholders with different interests?

Yes—a solution would be dependent on school staff and administrators, as well as state level and local infrastructure with their own interests and agenda.

Parents, guardians, students, youth workers, charities, and other stakeholders would also be involved in any potential solution.

Is it a wicked problem?

Yes, the difficulty of turning around a chronically underperforming school, as well as the multiple and complex interdependencies and stakeholders involved mean turning around a long-term chronically underperforming school is a wicked problem.

Now we’ve defined wicked problems and taken a look at real-world examples, let’s explore how it applies to design.

We’ll do this by first seeing what the Design Thinking Process is, and examine how it could be applied to a wicked problem.

4. What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that is extremely useful for tackling ill-defined, complex, or unknown problems. 

As its name suggests, the process emerged in the design field and was often applied to design problems. Now it is widely used in design, product, and development teams globally.

Design Thinking is structured to:

  • Understand users
  • Reframe problems in human-centered ways
  • Challenge underlying assumptions
  • Redefine problems
  • Rapidly create innovative solutions to prototype and test.

For a deeper understanding of Design Thinking, you can take a look at our comprehensive guide to Design Thinking. You can also let designer Rob Hamblen explain about the Design Thinking Process and how to apply it in this video:

Typically, the Design Thinking Process is made up of five key stages:

  1. Empathize 
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

These stages aren’t necessarily linear, as discoveries made along the way often require previous steps to be repeated.

And, due to the unique and challenging nature of complex design problems, the process will often need to be run through several times.

Now, if we circle back to our opening description of wicked problems, we can see that wicked problems can often resemble complex design problems

Both wicked problems and complex design problems are unique and novel, difficult or impossible to solve, and characterized by incomplete factors and complex interdependencies. 

On top of this, they’re often subject to contradictory evidence and dependent on multiple stakeholders with different interests.

This connection comes into play when we consider the potential value and relevance of Design Thinking in approaching wicked problems. 

It was Richard Buchanan, a design theorist and academic, who first connected the two in his 1992 paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.”

He made the connection between Design Thinking and wicked problems after he saw that the iterative process in Design Thinking could be applied to wicked problems outside of the design world.

To explore this further, let’s take one of the wicked problems we looked at earlier—the challenge of turning around a chronically underperforming school—and see how Design Thinking could be applied to it.

5. Applying Design Thinking to wicked problems

Applying Design Thinking to turn around a chronically underperforming school could result in a rapid iterative process that looked something like this:

1. Empathize—Research your users’ needs

The first stage of the Design Thinking Process is empathizing. This means researching and understanding your users’ needs.

When applied to turning around an underperforming school, the main user groups would be students, parents, guardians, teachers, and school administrators. Local politicians and community leaders might be secondary groups.

In this case, the best form of research would probably be one-on-one interviews. The aim would be to learn about users’ situations—specifically their precise needs, pain points, and blockers. 

2. Define—State your users’ needs and problems

The next stage is defining the users’ needs and problems. The information will help to define the various root causes at the heart of the school’s underperformance.

All of the user groups—students, parents, guardians, teachers, and school administrators—would have different needs and different problems preventing them from having those needs met. 

A key part of the Design Thinking Process is fully understanding users’ needs and problems, and by the end of step two you should have a solid understanding of them and their root causes.

3. Ideate—Challenge assumptions and create ideas

The next stage is ideation, which means challenging the assumptions underlying the wicked problem and brainstorming multiple ideas for tackling it.

In this case, an assumption to challenged could be: 

The school budget means it’s impossible to afford the support and facilities necessary to tackle the root causes of underperformance.

That assumption itself is based on two other assumptions—that the school budget is fixed, and that the support and facilities need to be paid for out of the school budget.

The Design Thinking Process would create ideas to challenge those assumptions. Examples could be:

  • A parent and guardian council partnered with school leadership and governors to lobby the education board for increased funding 
  • Building partnerships with youth mentoring, drug awareness, and tutoring charities
  • Starting a fundraising campaign for sporting and creative facilities and ventures
  • A project in partnership with local government to ensure every student’s household is receiving the financial support and healthcare they are entitled to
  • Targeted outreach to parents and guardians who are speakers of other languages to make them aware of their children’s school situation and put them in touch with free translation services. 

Now the process has led to a set of ideas that could be used to tackle the school’s underperformance, the next stage would be to start prototyping.

4. Prototype—Start to create solutions

If you’re not familiar with it yet, brush up on our introductory guide to prototyping.

Creating a prototype from the idea of building a partnership with a tutoring charity could look like this:

  • Establishing contact with the tutoring charity
  • Agreeing on the terms of a pilot intensive tutoring program 
  • Working with teachers to assign tutoring for 10 students with a high need for support
  • Working with students, teachers, parents, and guardians to ensure students understand their responsibilities in the tutoring program. 

After creating this solution as part of the prototype, it would be time to test its effectiveness.

5. Test—Try your solutions out

After the intensive tutoring pilot program was rolled out, its success could be measured both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Qualitative success metrics could be gathered from interviewing the students, tutors, and parents about what went well and what didn’t. 

Quantitative success metrics could be indicators such as the students’ performance in the tutored subject before and after the program. 

If the program was having the desired impact, it could be expanded to include more students. 

Alternatively, if it wasn’t having the desired impact, we could return to stage four to an earlier stage in the process and iterate on the pilot program prototype or focus on an altogether new solution.

Final thoughts: why Design Thinking and wicked problems can go together

Design Thinking can be applied to wicked problems successfully for three main reasons.

Firstly, its emphasis on gathering evidence in the empathize stage is useful for approaching a wicked problem with a clear foundation for action as well as a strong understanding of the users, stakeholders, and interdependencies involved. 

Secondly, its rapid iterative process (empathize → define → ideate → prototype → test) is particularly suited to the unique, complex, and difficult nature of wicked problems. 

This is because it encourages broad and creative ideation which produces multiple solutions, which can then be tested rapidly and/or simultaneously.

Finally, Design Thinking stresses the importance of failing often—as quick and cheap failures are a key part of the iterative process. Each failure should be another step towards a solution. 

This is a very useful approach for tackling wicked problems, as it accelerates the learning process and ensures resources aren’t wasted on slow and expensive failures.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of wicked problems and Design Thinking. To dive deeper into the subject, why not check out our comprehensive guide The Key Principles and Steps of the Design Thinking Process.

If you’d like to read about other topics from the field of UX design, check out these articles:

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