3 min read

Wicked Problems and Design Thinking

Auckland Harbour

While in New Zealand I had the fortunate timing to be able to attend a Service Design Article Meetup. Set up by the fantastic Penny Hagen and attended by a number of service and UX designers, the format is fairly self-explanatory: the advantage of choosing an article rather than a book is that it allows for quicker reading! And it’s also an opportunity to pick apart what can often be a dense text (as the evening would show).

The NZTE venue had an unexpected benefit when you got past the initial issue of several events happening in the same place (don’t accidentally end up in a talk on China or the Pacific!): corporate-event quality spare food! This particular paper was Richard Buchannan’s, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking, which is over 20 years old (it was published in 1992) but is still pertinent today.

While I’d read the paper a few years back, I found that, like Penny admitted herself, I’d been so blinded by one particular aspect of the paper (wicked problems) that I’d missed many other pertinent points.

Issues discussed by the group included:

Placements vs categories and the issue of selling/consultancies with design

Buchannan talks a lot about placements:

Placements are the tools by which a designer intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development. —p17

He also notes that they are different from categories which have “fixed meanings”. Instead, a designer’s own expertise plays into a placement, allowing for specificities that mean the difference between one project and another..

The problem is that it’s all too easy to talk about and sell categories, or as the group extrapolated on this to mean, design methods. One member of the group notes that he’s moving away from using the word ‘method’ for this particular reason and instead prefers to use the word ‘tools’. (For the record, us Northumbria people are leaning towards ‘resources’ [PDF]).

The group noted that clients often struggle with the idea that a design process can be messy and change – they want the security of a step-by-step method – but that in some cases you do get a mature client that is able to understand that the process will give results, even if they don’t know what they are. Hinging on this was commentary about how many (how few) NZ companies invest in R&D. And the old consultancy chestnut about how a client may say that they want something new in a sector … but look for a vendor to have same-sector examples and even potentially want to just plain old copy them!

Rittel and responsibility

Horst Rittel’s work is often cited (and also discounted) by design researchers, but we found that there are potentially some elements that aren’t really discussed. Namely, points 8 and 10 on the list of his rules for wicked problems, as cited by Buchannan in the paper:

(8) Solving a wicked problem is a “one shot” operation, with no room for trial and error….

(10) The wicked problem solver has no right to be wrong-they are fully responsible for their actions -p16

What does this mean, to have to be responsible and that there is no such thing as being wrong? The group eventually decided that this came to a matter of methodology: claiming something as being wrong implies that you see it as over and walk away. (As someone living in the UK when Thatcher died, I couldn’t help but think of the testing of the poll tax in Scotland in 1990).

Developing from this was the discussion by a researcher that when it comes to social change that there is no such thing as a pilot and scaling: an experiment should be self-contained and then re-deployed as a new example.
Moving beyond this was the idea of how designers just do things and whether when it came to social situations this was ethically feasible. A designer may think that they’re doing no harm, but in situations such as those with vulnerable people, should they instead be using or at least collaborating with health professionals and other researchers who have undergone rigorous training in these area?

Design and the artificial vs human-centred

Whether in fact there was a fundamental issue relating to design and design education being in fact the science of the artificial as states by Rittel, rather than about behaviour and people as is particularly attended to in service design. It was also pointed out that other professions such as architecture and industrial design have traditionally been all too happy to defer to the ‘genius designer’. Conversely, designers potentially have to grapple with other considerations that are in fact far and away from the customer (be it KPIs, cutting costs etc).

Is this particularly an issue of design education also leaning towards the material rather than the human? As someone with a foot in the academic camp as well as the industry one, I found this a particularly intriguing question, and one that probably requires further investigation.