Following on from last week’s post on wicked problems, I got to thinking about the general sorts of challenges that occur in design, whether it be design of software, bridges, posters, web sites, or even social policy.
It seems there’s three main types of challenge:
In addition, there are many tasks that are auxiliary in that they support the design activity and provide feedback to it, but aren’t really part of it. For example, in software engineering, implementation isn’t really part of the design activity it supports, though it may provide feedback, perhaps in the form of technical constraints. Similarly, administration and project management provide feedback concerning resource availability, team morale, and so on, but they’re not really design.
You might have noticed that I’m conflating the activities of design and problem solving. While they’re not equivalent, they’re very closely related. Depending on your background, you might think of problem solving as being the stage in the design process that follows problem definition and precedes implementation – in this case, you might think of problem solving as the process of creatively deriving a solution to a design problem. On the other hand, you might see design as a stage within problem solving in which one designs potential solutions before trying them. I don’t think it’s necessary to get any deeper into this – it’s just interesting to note that you can frame design as problem solving and problem solving as design.
Another interesting thing to note is that the auxiliary tasks, while not design themselves, incorporate lots of problems to which one designs solutions, and that these can be considered whole design problems not necessarily related or subordinate to the larger design activity in which they take place. In this sense, you can think of design as a hierarchical composites of smaller designs. If you take the broader understanding of design as problem solving, you can apply this observation to a vast range of activities.
I’m simplifying things here – I don’t want to imply that design consists of three clearly defined tasks based around the challenges above and supported by various auxiliary tasks. Nor do I want to suggest that any of these tasks can or should be performed in isolation (particularly in the case of wicked problems). Rather, the tasks that compose the design activity are tightly interwoven. By drawing out the challenges above, I only want to bring attention to them as things that are hard and that require particular skills to address.
I’m tempted to argue that, taken together, the skills required for each of these three tasks form a set of skills that are common to designers across all the various fields of design, from software to graphics, from architecture to social policy. But I’m not sure how I’d substantiate that, so I’ll it as a speculation.
What challenges am I missing? What other skills are common to all designers, do you think?
Today I read a paper from 1971 by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber about “wicked problems” – problems that are intrinsically difficult or impossible to solve in the sense that one can solve a crossword or mathematical proof, or win a game of chess. Wicked problems abound in policy questions and design, and it’s interesting to think about what differentiates them from these other “tame problems”.
The paper defines a wicked problem as one with most of the characteristics in the list below. Bear with me, because being able to spot a wicked problem and thus infer the consequences of that fact is quite a powerful tool for thinking about decision making in pretty much any context. Once you’ve got a clear idea of the concept, you can start seeing them everywhere – in policy such as city planning, in international conflict, project management, personal time management, and even in family Christmases. They’re everywhere, and, unlike tame problems, they’re impossible to solve absolutely, though sometimes they can be resolved partially with relative ease.
This list constitutes a polythetic or cluster definition; that is, problems must have some, but not all of the criteria to be considered wicked. Furthermore, problems possess them to a greater or lesser extent than others, implying the idea of a continuum of problem wickedness. Polythetic definitions are normally used to define complex concepts in philosophy, and the fact that such a definition is required to define wicked problems suggests that they are not a clear or natural category as the paper suggests.
That said, however, the category of tame problems is much clearer. It consists of problems with stopping criteria, clear correctness of outcomes, limited solution action sets with clear results. It seems, then, that wicked problems are perhaps best understood as the set of all problems that are not tame.
One implication of the wickedness continuum is that wicked problems could be made less wicked if we understood the factors that make them wicked. Unfortunately, however, the list of criteria above is primarily descriptive, not explanatory, and so only of use as a starting point. On Tuesday, I’ll be participating in a further discussion on this topic in which I’d like to explore explanations of what makes a problem wicked. This would, I think, give a better definition as well as some ideas for how wickedness might be reduced. Below are some candidate explanations:
There’s one last point I want to make. Being written in 1973, the paper gives the impression that the difference between wicked and tame problems maps fairly clearly to the difference between abstract, mathematical or game problems and real political and social problems. It’s interesting to note that in recent years, the term wicked problem has been used to describe problems in software engineering and design that exhibit many of the same properties of the social problems outlined in the paper, demonstrating that it is not abstraction itself that makes a problem tame. It would also be interesting, I think, to look at some of the strategies employed by engineering teams to deal with wicked software problems, and work out if they could be applied to wicked problems in a social or political context. Food for thought, anyway.