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5 posts from May 2008

Trying to Solve a Wicked Problem?

It Would Be Easy

When you work as a professional in the area of solving problems for clients, no matter what your discipline, there's rarely a roadblock you run up against that can't be overcome through collective brainpower or sheer brute force.

Most designers would be loath to concede defeat in the face of a client need. We thrive on challenges that require all of our wits to surmount, either by solving a difficult problem with an elegant design solution, or reframing the problem to probe the thinking behind it and come up with a new problem to solve properly. Wrong audience, business, message, media: no problem. Just adjust these dials, push a button or two, and we've recalibrated the machine for maximum throughput. Press "print" or "go live" and all will be well in the state of Designopolis.

Once you start playing with the big corporations, however, you aren't solving simple problems anymore. Instead of digging a hole to plant your tree, you're asked to move a mountain, spoonful by spoonful, to the other side of the bay. And while you're at it, can you raise customer satisfaction in the 24 to 40 age bracket by 20 percent and sell $2 million more of our product line, and pronto? Different goals and needs become tangled together. What you as a designer can control, and what your client controls, become contingent. Insert a wicked problem here, and it'll all go haywire.

Wicked problems. Big, thorny, gnarly problems. The kinds of problems that drive our creative industries to sleepless nights, burning with their own sort of dangerous energy, morphing over time and confounding marketers left and right.

The idea of "wicked problems" was coined by Horst Rittel, a theorist of design and planning and M. Webber. (See the full Wikipedia entry here.) I've copied Rittel and Webber's list of wicked problem criteria here from Wikipedia because they can't really be paraphrased, and while they're related to social policy planning, as you read through this list some previous clients you've worked with and the problems they were trying to solve might bubble to the surface of your mind:

  • There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.

  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

  • 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.

  • Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

  • The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.

  • The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

While scientists have been spending years trying to develop various tactics to break down and expound upon wicked problems to derive positive change, we as designers can't easily engage with wicked problems -- that is, without entering into a client-designer relationship without both parties being aware that the problem is wicked and that we can only define success as a specific type of improvement agreed upon by both parties. Without calling out the complexity of a problem before engaging with a client, and being aware that you can't "solve it," you can't easily escape failure. This is why marketing is both an art and a science. You can quantify your goals and your previous actions, but only hope to predict the outcomes of your current and future actions, based on a snapshot of your audience's needs that are fluid, at best.

When I first read this list, a wicked problem for designers seemed to fit these criteria neatly:

Being asked to steer public opinion regarding a complex societal problem to sell a product. Hello, greenwashing. Social responsibility marketing, or any kind of marketing that is hinged on "changing the world for the better," really, is a function of a wicked problem. This is why there's hypocrisy inherent in promoting incremental improvement towards an idealistic goal of reduced environmental impact for, say, a plastics corporation. I could go on and on regarding this subject, but I'll leave it here with the knowledge that my thinking alone won't make a major dent in this problem. Marketing products through social responsibility requires reductive thinking on the part of the marketer and the market, which doesn't always indicate positive change from the requested action on the part of the customer.

The following didn't seem like a wicked problem at first, but it's definitely indicative of some of these criteria and hard to overcome:

Being asked to create belief in a company's actions when the customer's desired experience is never acknolwedged. If you are asked to motivate consumers to act based on a poor product experience, it's going to be an uphill fight. The rules change monthly, if not daily, based on customer behavior prompted by variables you can't control. Designers can't solve these types of problems without systemic change by the client, and can only effect positive change by attempting to foster alignment across all parties in the long term -- and hoping your competitors don't move to entrench their relationships with said audience at the same time. This type of situation requires designers to have discussions with potential clients about doing more than a marketing campaign. It requires a systemic gutting of how that company approaches their customer experience to achieve real success. Otherwise, you're just moving the needle positively in one area while the other ones plummet.

You'll notice that posing any type of positive solution to these wicked problems fall outside the domain of what designers can usually control. And nowadays when a client comes to you, asking for a solution to a problem that can't really be solved, only improved, it usually requires reframing the problem on a grand scale -- reaching your hands into the mechanisms of their organization to point out where the real problems may lie. This can be a scary place for a designer to operate, as it isn't always our core competency. Also, as marketing can be very reductive -- Universal Selling Proposition? Three product pillars in the body copy? -- I would argue that any type of reductive thinking will actually worsen a wicked problem unless it's grounded in a very sophisticated long-term plan that strings together those marketing nibbles into a holistic, long-term pattern that generates meaningful change.

Common Flaws of Web Site Search Design

Something Useful

I fondly remember the good old days of mediocre search technology, where you could design a Web site with the assumption that people would expend at least a few dozen seconds combing through your site's pages to see if there was anything of interest.

Nowadays, you only have a matter of seconds to grab a site visitor's interest, and that generally consists of the following actions: 1) scanning the page for a few moments for headlines of interest; 2) thinking if there's anything on the site that isn't exposed that they would like to find, and 3) typing a keyword into your search bar. Not much else, unless they land on a page in your site from a search, and you'd better hope your information architecture is strong enough to orient them.

Knowing this is the default behavior for a good number of your site visitors makes the design and placement of your site search tools of critical importance for a functional user experience. Users expect the quickest paths between their need and a correct result -- they want the bullet train, not the sailboat.

Here's some common UX design gaffes related to search I've noticed recently, clearly documented, and tried to avoid in my own work.

1. Placing filters or pull-down options in a simple search. Ready to go find all the content related to, say, corgis? People have grown to expect just a box and a submit button if they're executing a self-guided search. Don't add pull-down menus or anything else that allows people to filter content independent of keywords on your plain text search box. Put those features in your advanced search functionality for those users who want to get crafty with selecting different types of context and don't know the shortcuts like "grouping words together" in the search box, etc.

2. Changing controls from search to result. Very dangerous. Users expect consistency from their search experience and the functionality that they're presented with. When flipping from the initial query to your results screen, your search box shouldn't change functionality. If you offer an advanced search, it should always be an option to toggle on, or never be an option for the end user. Otherwise, you're going to confuse them and/or piss them off.

3. Not making your search criteria explicit. Your search page design should always foreground what the user sought before any search listings. It's not enough to re-render the same search terms within the search box. There must be a listing of what they asked for before you give them what they asked for, and with a real level of prominence in the visual design. I liken it to placing an order at a restaurant. When your meal arrives, your waitron usually says, "So, you ordered the cheeseburger with avocado, right?" Same principle.

4. Over/Underbuilding the advanced search. If you do offer the user an advanced search, consider clustering different search methods on one screen, then collapsing them and having the user choose which methods they want to combine to search your site. This allows the user to expose types of data they're wishing to sift and use those in concert. Google does this fairly well. Don't implement it like the advanced search on Windows Live which forces you to string together your advanced search criteria one at a time. Fewer interactions foregrounded in one place will equal a better user experience.

We Are Web Technology

Human Search

Recently, I had an idea for a classy text interface that I thought would revolutionize how people used the Internet. Within five minutes of online research, I discovered that someone else had come up with the same idea... in 1986.

The lure of Web 2.0, a.k.a user-centered computing mechanics, is finally beginning to outstrip the humble origins of HTML and its basis in a formatting language for articles and other educational ephemera. But we have many decades-worth of ideas within the coffers of both academia and popular business related to interface design just yearning to step onto the stage of the Web. And I'll wager that it will take another two to three decades to reach the point where Internet users are comfortable with these advances. They will revolutionize how we engage with and consume information.

The initial beauty of hypertext was its ability to channel and shape large volumes of information and allow linking to similar types of content. The real revolution to occur in user-centered Web systems has little to do with typesetting content, and everything to do with contextual organization and passing knowledge through conversation.

Let's Create a Little Context

I want a fluid markup language that is easily usable by the layperson that automatically allows us to build intelligent, intuitive relationships between different types of content. I'm not talking about XML, per se. XML is the enabling factor that will encapsulate all Web content. I'm talking about the browsers that parse XML and spit out the Web pages we love so much in fresher, more usable ways.

For example: In the future, and hopefully the near future, I would hope to see Web pages and/or browsers where, if you are reading on a topic of interest, the article could reconfigure based on areas that you linger upon, offering up topics that may be of interest in a separate sidebar.

Or, if you click on a link within the paragraph, instead of being tossed into another browser window or tab, a secondary channel on the page opens to enclose and accommodate that content, allowing you to choose a path of inquiry in-line before punting to another location.

This would require sifting and sorting of content elements that goes beyond what we call content management. It would require a method of relational sorting and artificial intelligence that may not exist yet in the consumer space, though I have a feeling it already exists in some form at Xerox PARC or Apple, but is being withheld from the general market as it is not seen as "usable" yet.

DHTML and AJAX are allowing us to add another layer of context within Web pages, so we can explore deeper levels of information within a single Web page. And yet it's still not enough, and that kind of functionality is usually custom-built at great expense. We're still bookmarking pages (socially or otherwise) and leafing through the online equivalent of a magazine. A well-designed magazine that evolves over time in response to my activity, mind you, but still a magazine. Most related links are hand-coded in, and companies like Amazon and Netflix have invested millions in creating automated systems that create context. Bring their systems to the masses. Organize us relationally.

Either that, or rely more heavily on the content management system that we call The Human Brain.

That's What I'm Talking About

What stands in the way of this contextual method of organizing and navigating Web content? Ourselves. Humans have yet to evolve to the point that they can move beyond the static page en masse. Perhaps the next generation of Web users will be able to grok this method of information navigation without feeling like the ground is about to give way beneath their feet.

It's clear that the Internet has turned into the Mariana Trench of human knowledge. Trawling that almost infinite depth of information has become entirely impersonal. We don't control how we reach the things that we need, and we can't easily control how that information is presented. When couched in these terms, it's easy to understand why it's so hard to create a Web system that users would want to experience.

Novels, essays, articles, blog posts, diaries, text messages -- these are all fixed forms that govern how we apprehend content and structure how we consume them. When we compare the longevity of those forms to a fluid content bucket that can't be passed along or referred to another person without changing in some way, you can only imagine the fear it would strike in an everyday user. Just give me a page with what I want, or a search engine that can find me what I want within two clicks (unless I'm feeling lucky). Seeking knowledge, fulfilling task, receiving information, end stop.

Interestingly, if you think about how people seek knowledge independent of the Internet -- through real-life queries and conversation with peers that have reservoirs of knowledge -- then you'd think we'd be spending more time creating Web systems that mimic that human-to-human mode of information acquisition, that add shape and color around information that we seek. I see this as not Web 3.0, or even 5.0. Until there are heuristics that can resolve these levels of complexity in a piece of content, and spit out a relatively appropriate answer the majority of the time, this technology will be a novelty used by dozens.

Thankfully, we have the time and the depth of material out on the Internet to use as our laboratory, as well as the new explosion of smart devices and micro-computers that will worm their way into the fabric of our everyday activities. By the time this type of contextual navigation reaches the masses, we'll be so plugged in that we'll probably just be querying people instead of computers to receive what we need. Oh, wait -- I just got a text message from a friend asking me if I know a good place to find high-quality dark chocolate...

[UPDATE: Check out for a taste of what I'm talking about... currently it works with a subset of information-dense sites like Wikipedia.]

18 Minutes

Do Be

You can lose yourself in the process of creating something meaningful for your client, and in the process, literally lose yourself.

Most of my friends and colleagues know me as a fairly pragmatic character, but over the past year, I have been a somewhat fervent believer of "getting out of your own way" -- creating the space in our creative practice to allow the unconscious, the intutitive, and the poetic to be channeled into your work.

In a business that often bills on time spent ideating and then creating things from those ideas, there is always a strong urge to try and quantify every last dribble of work splashed on the page, marrying Ford-factory-like precision to the creative act to ensure maximum throughput on each finely tuned engine (read "designer"). This is the curse of every businessperson who weds themselves to creative industry. The cows are in the pasture, ruminating on grass. Holler at them all you want, but they won't make the milk any faster, growth hormones be damned.

This morning in yoga class, our instructor was focusing on the seventh chakra, the seat of all the other chakras in our body--where true consciousness and intuition illuminate the bodymind like the lumens projected on a television screen.

"It takes 18 minutes of sitting to reach a meditative state," she said at the start of class, and as we progressed through a set of asanas, we would pause to sit, breathe, and let that screen of the seventh chakra slowly clarify, pushing space aside to allow us to experience life as it is, unmediated.

After yoga class, I couldn't help but reflect on my own struggles with time and space in my daily work. Time was necessary to reach the most artful conclusion; space to explore the options before me and drive down the right path. Neither of these dimensions are linear. Neither tolerate mediation. It's very hard for most businesspeople to enforce space for play, and feel confident that the play will lead to something that can be quantified, then sold. Sheer unburdened creative thought, with no sense of utility or application, must be like arsenic to the accountant. Creativity is ambiguity, which is the enemy of economy.

I'd like to disabuse their objections, stow the calculators away, and put forth the following postulate -- that without unburdened play focused on the self, followed swiftly by focused attention on a design problem, clears space in the mind for your self to engage with the work at hand. I think it's one of the few ways to truly inspire the spirit of humanity that infuses design work for paid clients with that little hint of soul.

So next time you're in a situation where you're asked to exceed what you think you can accomplish as a creative, set a timer for 18 minutes and meditate on whatever comes to mind.

During that period of time, you can't hunt through books for an inspiring design, or read your e-mail, or talk with a coworker as a quick break from the stress. Place a pencil in your hand, a sheet of paper on the desk, and turn off your mind.

You aren't being creative. You aren't working. You aren't solving a problem. You are definitely not distracting yourself from the work. You're letting you happen.

This window of being in the midst of doing, even when the stakes are so high that you're losing sleep, is where you can most strongly assert your humanity. Do not be sucked into the feeling of self-sacrifice that punts the life right out of meaningful creative labor. You must give yourself willingly -- but only after giving yourself space to be yourself.

The Three Fundamentals of Creative Strategy, Pt. 6

Uh Oh

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Now that we've worked through some of the key approaches to formulating business, marketing, and tactical strategies for your clients -- and how those form the frame around your creative strategy -- I thought it would be valuable to include a few points about how to distill your marketing insights into compelling creative communications.

Think outside the box, but inside the strategy.

As a designer, there's nothing I love more than launching into space after reading a creative brief, brainstorming solutions for the client's needs. But that brainstorm should never go off into deep space, never to return. I know it's bad etiquette to edit during brainstorms, so I try to let every idea have its due... at first. But when you're culling those ideas down to what will become solid concepts to put in front of the client, you have to be ruthless. Anything that doesn't fit the strategy and the key insight the client approved in the brief, or modifies that insight into something completely fresh and new, needs to be placed in the parking lot and saved for future use. (Unless your brief was wrong in the first place, which means you should back up a few paces and make sure you landed the right insight to back up your creative work.)

Firmly fix your concepts on a properly told story.

You know they want your vacuum cleaner because it has a sexy design, it lives at a slightly lower price point than the competition, and the HEPA filter makes it easy to clean up dog hair. Yawn. Don't tell me the details. Show me how it's going to change my life. Find a story that communicates this seed feeling to me. Then hammer on it mercilessly. Again, if you don't have a story that matches your key insight, you need to step back and rethink where you're at.

Don't move away from a key insight or position too quickly. You might piss off your clients and your audience.

As you develop creative concepts in a series, don't be too hasty to bring in something new. There's a major piss-off factor that happens when you iterate insights about your brand too quickly. It usually just means that you landed on the wrong insight, which is a kind of weakness that consumers can smell on the wind.

You won't lose a client because your key insight over a year or two doesn't continue to hold. Audience behavior shifts over time, based on a number of factors that corporations and designers can't easily control. But you will lose a client straight out of the gate if your key insight fails to hold up. It means that the foundations of your house were faulty to begin with, and somewhere along the way, due diligence wasn't exercised. So be sure that if you are going to make a client recommendation, the tires have been kicked enough times that you don't have to fear running out of air as you pull onto the highway.


Now that you understand your client's business logic, their overall marketing needs, and what tactics you're going to employ based on your audience behavior, you're ready to create properly positioned creative concepts. At this point, it may seem like your work is going to be bulletproof, but we're only halfway home. You've got to execute an effective piece of marketing communications! Thankfully, that's the lion's share of what we get paid for, and in many ways, what we'll always need to do best to retain our clients.