The wickedness of products

Wicked problems made simple

Both as a teacher and a professional, I often run into discussions about problem solving methodologies, and there is one thing that almost always comes up, and I almost always don’t have the time to discuss it. And this is the nature of problems that we, as designers have to solve. And the wickedness of them. And I usually just keep saying stuff like “read this essay from Richard Buchanan” or “check out what Horst Rittel wrote about this”. And what my students, colleagues, and pretty much everybody does is, well, forget it by tomorrow. Which is kinda natural, nobody will read thirty to fifty year old articles hardly available anywhere, when there are more current and more practical ones out there.

I do believe, mostly in our methodology-obsessed world of agileness, human centered-ness and a true passion of designers to change the world, it is crucial to understand this concept. So this post is not about the views, and the shares, and the comments, but about finally not having to point to these papers (that actually really require a certain mindset and quite some online research — one article I read five years ago, took me two months to acquire again), but being able to say “read my post”.

Why is this an issue?

Most designers, entrepreneurs, startup people, innovators are quite familiar with problem solving methodologies like Design Thinking, Human Centered Design, Lean. And these things are actually great things. These approaches are all based on the negation of a deterministic and linear approach of solving real world problems. The problem is, this is not how the human brain works by default. The human brain is optimized to solve simple problems, like getting some breakfast, taking exams at school, or winning a game of chess, which are all highly deterministic in nature and pretty much soluble in a linear way.

If we don’t understand the fundamental difference between these problems and the ones we face when solving design problems, we will for sure not go the extra mile and force our brains to operate in a different mode. The thing with design methodologies like Design Thinking is that they can’t punish you. Even if you use them the wrong way, they still kinda work, and you will never see what great things could have happened on that extra mile.

So the basics

Not all problems are created equal. There are the tame ones and the wicked ones. Getting breakfast, or even winning a game of chess (although quite a complex one), are tame problems. Without going into checklist, this means that these problems are well defined (the goal and the operations are clear), you know the problem space (you know what is edible, or what moves you can take on the board), and even if you have never met this exact problem before, you have met plenty of similar ones to gain experience from (you must have had dinner before, or played chess with someone else). These problems can be solved by taking specific steps you can be sure are adequate (for sure you know that jumping on a trampoline will not solve your breakfast problem), and you can always be sure if the problem is solved or not (either you have already won the game, or you haven’t, but at least you know). Also, if you fail with your strategy, you can try again. These problems are known as tame problems.

Unfortunately, some problems are different.They are indeterminate, are very complex, and react to attacks quite differently. They are known as wicked problems.

What makes it wicked and why it matters?

About forty years ago, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber created a great definition of wicked problems. It’s basically a checklist, quite a short one, with just ten items. If all ten of the statements are true to a problem, it can be considered wicked. The problem is that if you just scan through these, you either see them relevant to your problem, or you don’t. So what I will do now is go through these criteria, and try to connect them with problems designers, entrepreneurs, and all kind of makers actually face. And I hope this will help you understand why pretty much every problem you face as a product person is a wicked one.

There is no definitive formulation of the problem A.K.A. Coursera vs. Kickstarter

A wicked problem does not, and can not have a definitive formulation, because to collect all the information required for solving it, you must have an idea of what the solution can be. Cryptic, right?

Consider social mobility. Some people are able to have a better life than their parents did, while some are not. Why is that, and, more importantly, what could we do to change that? Well, it depends. What causes a lack of mobility in the society? Is it the lack of money to start off of? A lot of successful people are successful because they had some money to invest, but not all of them. Some only had a good idea, and some good connections to get someone to invest in them. So the solution may be something about connecting people with good ideas to people with money to invest. Is the problem formulated now? Well, yes, but only in the light of that specific solution. And we can start building Kickstarter.

But is it the right formulation of the problem? Social mobility is also connected to education. People with better educational backgrounds have better chances in the world. So the problem seems to be in the education system. Or even more specifically, in the access to that education system — some have it, and some don’t. So the problem can be fixed by more accessible education. Is that a good formulation of the problem? If we believe the solution may be an open education platform like Coursera, yes, it is.

And the fun part is: there is no way to decide which one is better, because there is no better formulation. They can only be considered adequate or inadequate in connection with the problem at hand.

There is no stopping rule A.K.A. Have we changed the World yet?

With most design problems, you are not able to determine if the problem you are solving is actually solved. As you are the one defining the problem, which is really the process of finding the solution, the success criteria are also relative to the problem definition and the solution at hand, and are not inherent to the problem. It’s the problem solver that decides if a solution is good enough. Just compare setting your own KPIs (wicked problem) to having to checkmate the king (tame problem).

There is no true and false A.K.A. The symmetry of ignorance

In the case of simple, or even complex tame problems, there is always a way to decide whether a solution is correct or false in the logical sense. An equation is either true, or it’s false. The problem solver is not alone with deciding this — every possible solution can be independently checked by qualified experts of the field, and, as the problem is well established, they also have the criteria for this.

Design problems are different because there are no established criteria to check the solutions against. There are usually multiple people from multiple fields involved in the process, and none of them is entitled to make this decision. This phenomenon is known as the symmetry of ignorance — as there are multiple parties carrying the body of knowledge required to solve a problem, none of them can guarantee that their knowledge is superior to that of the others. Therefore, solutions can only be judged as good or bad — but there is really no way to check this.

There is no ultimate test of a solution A.K.A. There is no such thing as “just an app”

With design problems, you don’t get the chance to test your solution fully before you implement it. And it’s not just about whether the solution is good or bad. It’s also about the consequences that you can not prepare for.

If your product fails, that’s totally OK. Most new products do. Your customers will forget it, your investors will forget it, and you go on doing something else eventually. But what happens if it doesn’t fail? Besides you being really rich. What happens if you make an app and hundreds of millions of people start using it? Actually, nobody can tell. The founders of Twitter couldn’t have predicted that their platform will fuel revolutions around the world. The creator of Bitcoin couldn’t have predicted Silk Road.

Although you are not able to see all the consequences of your design, because it will be implemented in the human society, and that is probably the most complicated and volatile system out there. Still, you have to think about this, and have a plan for what happens if your product actually becomes a part of this system.

Every solution to a wicked problem changes the problem itself A.K.A. You have only one shot

Most designers dream about changing the World with an idea. To disrupt the status quo. Well I have good news for you: with every design decision, and every new product, that’s exactly what you do. Because every time you propose and implement a solution to a design problem, you change the problem space itself, and it can never be reverted. People’s lives will be influenced, resources will be used, and, probably most importantly, time will pass. And it is important in at least two ways.

“… all products — digital and analog, tangible and intangible — are vivid arguments about how we should lead our lives.” — Richard Buchanan (2001)

Or in other words, any product, any design you unleash in the world becomes a part of the world as it is. And anything that exists is a statement that the existence of such a thing is OK. So whenever you make a design decision, you also have to think about the intention of that design. Does it represent your idea of the world as it should be?

And there is the other thing. By proposing a solution to a problem, you use resources and time, and you change the problem space, too. The world of online dating will never be the same after Tinder. Actually, the whole domain of building relationships has changed. Connecting with friends will never be the same after Facebook. Just think about Ello.

Infinite solutions and operations A.K.A. Anything goes

With design problems, there is no enumerable set of possible solutions, so you can never say that you have considered every possible solution. It’s quite logical — as the definition of the problem is up to the problem solver, and the set of considered solutions is based on this definition, you will only be able to find solutions within the boundaries that you have built yourself. Usually, you can find a host of ideas, but that doesn’t mean that all of them have been found. But that also doesn’t mean that someone else could be able to find new solutions. The set of solutions is created by a sequence of choices, and is not inherent of the problem itself, just like the solution you are implementing — it’s just a matter of choice, and not predestination.

Also, the set of permissible operations is not limited either. It’s not like chess, where every figure has a set of specified moves available, and there is a set of strategies to choose from. With design decisions, you have unlimited options to choose from, and even when you think you are facing a boundary of budget, technology, or feasibility, these are usually also build by choices.

Wicked problems are unique A.K.A. Experience may not be your friend

Problems properties that make them similar and properties that make them different. This could mean that there are problem classes — there are solutions and strategies that work for every problem in that class. With design problems, this is not the case, because the problem definition is essentially incomplete. It doesn’t matter how many similarities and differences between problems you are able to discover, there will be more that you are not.

And this is extremely dangerous to designers. As you collect experience in a field, you may feel that you have seen everything and start to use analogies, solutions that already worked — and they might even work again. This is natural, this is how your brain functions — it searches for patterns, and if you find one, it changes the whole way you see thing. But it is also counterproductive. You must always force yourself to see the problem at hand in its uniqueness to make sure you are able to find the most adequate solutions.

Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem A.K.A. Your point-of-view is not the only one

Problems have levels. As a designer, you may think that the problem of a product is poor UX. But this eventually has to be a symptom of a higher level problem — like a lack of commitment to design in the organization, or a bad market situation forcing the company to not hire the best talent. And even that can be considered as a symptom of a bad economy, caused by a worldwide financial crisis, caused by a set of ill-formulated laws, caused by people who voted for a specific party in a country you have never been to.

It is always the problem solvers choice and responsibility to choose the proper level on which to attack the problem — and this level is most rarely the one that comes naturally.

Design problems are open for interpretation A.K.A. Even if you’re wrong, you might be right

Or to be more accurate. Every problem, wicked or tame, can be described as a discrepancy between the things as they are and the things as they ought to be. To understand a problem, you have to find the root cause of this discrepancy. But here comes the tricky part: as wicked problems do not have a definitive formulation, the selection of the root cause is also part of the problem solving process, and is only hypothetical. What makes it more complicated is that usually a problem has multiple causes with different weights, and the explanation of a problem is a combination of these. There is no way to determine the exact right explanation for a problem, the best you can do is build a hypothesis that is rather resistant to refutation.

Just think about climate change. It seems quite obvious that the root cause of climate change is air pollution, mostly from carbon fuels, so it seems like a good solution to reduce air pollution by outlawing ICE cars, carbon-emmissing power plants, or even the extraction of oil. But you could understand this problem as a flawed attitude of people and corporations tending to choose the cheapest and most convenient ways to do things. If this is what you identify as the root cause, you should not try to solve the problem by phasing out carbon fuel, as people, with the same attitude, will find other ways to destroy the atmosphere. In this case, your wise choice would be to change the attitude of people.

You have no right to be wrong A.K.A. Don’t be evil

And this is pretty much the most important one. When solving design problems, you are not just choosing colors, or writing copy, deciding on product values, although it mights seem so. You are actually changing the way people connect to the world. The better you understand your users, the more responsibility you have to use this knowledge with care. And you might say that these changes are tiny. But this tiny space in people’s lives is what you have control over, where you have power — and it’s up to your ethics and choices how you use this power.

What makes design so special?

Design problems are by their nature different from everyday problems, or even science problems. Probably the best explanation I have found yet is:

‘Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what the designer conceives it to be.’ — Richard Buchanan (1992)

What it means is that usual, everyday problems, and even science problems, are focused on understanding a specific part of the world. The subject of these problems already exists, your job as a problem solver is to understand the laws and principles of the subject matter. With design, it’s different because the initial scope of design can be pretty much everything within the field of human experience — the designer has to create their own domain, their own space. And these domains, as they are defined by the problems and issues at hand, are by nature unique, and in a way, arbitrary. Every single design problem creates its own field of research, understanding, like a new scientific field, which has, and can only have one expert: the designer. Every time you create something new, you create a new, tiny piece of existence, which has its own laws and principles, which are only true within, and it’s your journey to understand the laws and principles of something that you created.

So please, as a responsible designer — and by designer I mean anyone pursuing the liberal art of creating stuff for people — take some time and think about your decisions. And read these articles, really, not more than half an hour each.

Let me know your thoughts. Really. And you can also follow me here or on Twitter @csertanakos.


  • Richard Buchanan: “Design and the New Rhetoric: Productive Arts in the Philosophy of Culture” Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2001.
  • Richard Buchanan: “Wicked Problems in Design thinking” Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 5–21


  • Gerhard Fischer: “Social Creativity, Symmetry of Ignorance and Meta-Design”, Special Issue on “Creativity & Cognition 1999” of the International Journal “Knowledge-Based Systems,” Elsevier Science B.V., Oxford, UK, Vol 13, No 7–8, 2000, pp 527–537
  • Gerhard Fischer: “Learning, Social Creativity, and Cultures of Participation” in A. Sannino, & V. Ellis (Eds.), Learning and Collective Creativity: Activity-Theoretical and Sociocultural Studies, Taylor & Francis/Routledge, New York, NY, 2014, pp. 198–215.
  • Horst W. J. Rittel: “Second-Generation Design Methods”, in “Developments in Design Methodology”, N. Cross (Editor), John Wiley & Sons, UK, 1984, pp. 317–327.
  • Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber: “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning”, Policy Sciences 4, Elsevier Science, 1969, pp 155–173.
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