Thinking About Design – A Framework for Solving Wicked Problems

This post originally appeared on the Converge blog found at blog.ConvergeForImpact.com.

In 1967 the late design theorist Horst Rittel described wicked problems as a “class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” Wicked problems are not a recent phenomenon – but new strategies have recently emerged for solving them.

Our mission at Converge is to achieve maximum positive impact by helping our clients to make progress against the most complex problems of our day, including population-scale education, environmental sustainability, strong cities and quality healthcare.

Last year, while leading a “Learning Journey” for the New Leadership Network with our colleague Heather McLeod Grant, we visited the Stanford d.School to practice Design Thinking as a methodology for tackling the challenges faced by the city of Fresno, California. Since then, we have found Design Thinking to be a particularly effective framework for thinking about and making progress against wicked problems.

In particular, strategy & design complement each other well, as summarized in this passage from Kingshuk Das, Finding the Sweet Spot Between Strategy and Design, Rotman Magazine Fall 2014: “The trick is to apply the strengths of design thinking to those of strategy in specific ways. Design will help to open up new possibilities, and strategy will help you choose between them.

To provide a quick primer on Design Thinking, we have synthesized the key passages from the Stanford d.School’s Design Thinking Process Guide, with commentary based on our experience as practitioners:

Empathy – As a design thinker, the problems you are trying to solve are rarely your own. Instead, they are the problems of a particular group of people. In order to design for that group of people, you must gain empathy for who they are and what is important to them. Learn to see things from their eyes.

Empathy is the centerpiece of the human-centered design process. It is the work you do to understand people, including the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about the world, and what is meaningful to them, all within the context of your design challenge.

Converge note: If you don’t initially have time to engage with real users before ideating & prototyping, try this powerful empathy exercise to bring the whole system in the room: Arrange participant chairs back-to-back in a line, so nobody is facing another person. Then dim the lights and have participants think about one person affected by the system that they want to bring into the room, in a way that honors and doesn’t trivialize them. Have participants begin with “I am a _____” and continuing briefly to describe that person’s experience in the context of the system you are trying to influence. Once all participants have finished, debrief as a group what you have illuminated about the system, and who was missing from the exercise.

Define – It is your responsibility as a design thinker to define the challenge you are taking on, based on what you have learned about your user and about the context. The goal of the Define stage is to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement. Crafting a more narrowly focused problem statement tends to yield both greater quantity and higher quality solutions when you are generating ideas.

Converge note: We have found that it sometimes makes sense to begin the Design Cycle process at the Define stage if you already have a loose idea of what you are trying to solve. This will help focus your Empathy activities. Then, you can return to the Define stage and refine your problem definition if necessary.

Ideate is the process of “going wide” to transition from identifying problems to creating solutions for your users. It’s about pushing for the widest possible range of ideas from which you can select, not simply finding a single, best solution. The determination of the best solution will be discovered later, through user testing and feedback.

ID Matrix 2Converge note: To select which of your ideas to prototype, we have developed an “ID Analysis” (Impact x Doability) tool to prioritize your actions. Have participants or groups write each idea on a sticky note and place that idea on the matrix above. Ideas in the upper-right quadrant should be prioritized for prototyping.

Prototype – Once you select your highest-potential-impact solutions, create low-resolution prototypes that are quick and cheap to make but can elicit useful feedback from users and colleagues. A prototype can be anything that a user can interact with, to help test possibilities and stimulate emotions and responses from the user that you can use to refine your solutions.

Converge note: Who the “user” is depends on the problem you’re trying to solve. In the education system, your users are likely students or teachers; in the health system users may be patients or health professionals. It is important to define early on in the Empathy stage who your “user” is.

Test – Always prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong. Testing is the chance to refine your solutions and make them better. Solicit feedback about the prototypes you have created within the real context of the user’s life. Continue to ask “Why?” and focus on what you can learn about the person and the problem as well as your potential solutions.

Converge note: In the Test stage, it is absolutely essential to leave the building and go out into the real world to interact and test your prototype with real people. As Steve Blank, a successful serial entrepreneur and professor at Stanford University likes to say, “your first idea will always be wrong.”

Repeat – Iteration is a fundamental of good design. Iterate both by cycling through the process multiple times, and also by iterating within a step – for example by creating multiple prototypes or trying variations of a brainstorming topic with multiple groups.

Converge note: Once you have developed a prototype that tests positively with users, you can repeat the entire process with the goal of designing for scale. This will include a greater consideration of different user groups and contexts, a stronger emphasis on resource and capacity constraints, and a larger testing sample size. You should also consider a portfolio strategy where you test multiple potential solutions simultaneously to find the most effective combination. The Design Cycle process never ends – rather, you should continue to refine your solution relentlessly, for wicked problems will inevitably evolve beyond the scope of your original solution.

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