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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.


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