No rest for the wicked: a UX designer’s job is never done

Parag Deshpande asked me to explain about Wicked Problems, so here’s a quick rundown. I’m not going to write a long post since this has been written about extensively elsewhere (including wikipedia).

So, what is a Wicked Problem? It means a lot more than just “hard”. Specifically:

  • A Wicked Problem cannot be solved. It can only be “dealt with” in different ways, each of which have their own trade-offs and knock-on effects.
  • A Wicked Problem means you must always think of your approach as “work in progress”, i.e. “the best we can do for now, given our constraints”. There is always scope to improve on your approach. Over time, externalities may change and open up new possibilities.
  • Your understanding of the problem develops as you engage in your design process. The problem is a gradually emerging picture that is revealed by delving into design, tinkering and testing. Iterative research and design is ideal in this respect.
  • To complicate things, Wicked Problems are affected by your activities in the world. In other words, when you release something into the wild, people start to use it, this changes their behaviour, their understanding and expectations. Your very own butterfly effect!

Everything you deal with as a User Experience designer is a wicked problem, at least at some level. If you think a problem isn’t wicked, you need to take a step back and think again. You are in the business of designing things to help or entice people to engage in certain behaviours. There is never a right way of doing this, only better or worse, and even this depends on your perspective.

“In answer to your question, there is no understanding, there’s only different viewpoints – from wherever you stand.” – Tim Booth, 1990.