Creativity / UX design

What is a wicked problem and how can you solve it

Did you have the feeling of not been able to solve a wicked problem? Here I share with you some creativity methods to think outside the box and end-up with innovative solutions.

Adrián Nicolás Oller
12 min readJan 26, 2021
Image of tangled boat mooring ropes as a representation of something difficult to solve.

*Before to start. This article is based on the Interaction Design Foundation course: Creativity - Methods to Design Better Products and Services. I highly recommend it to you in case you want to learn a bit more about these methods.

Now, let’s begin!

1. What is a wicked problem?

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that’s difficult or impossible to solve — normally because of its complex and interconnected nature. Classic examples of wicked problems are poverty, climate change, education, homelessness, sustainability or transportations.

Characteristics of a Wicked Problem

  1. Frustration from not knowing where or how to begin. 🤯
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule — there’s no way to know whether your solution is final.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not easy to test — is difficult to know if you has make an impact or, in case there is a change, if it was because of your solution.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  5. Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
  6. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem. The explanations vary greatly depending on the individual’s perspective.

Sometimes you are able to find a set of potential solutions to these problems but those solution may not be innovative. So, if you are wondering to create stunning experiences (I hope you do) you need to think different.

2. How to think outside the 📦 ?

Perhaps most crucial to “think outside of the box” is to become aware of the boundaries that are hemming you in — because once you can see the box, it’s easier to see a way out of it!

There are occasions where you are in a hurry because of some deadline 😱 so you look on the shelf of pre-set solutions for the one that fix into your problem. Sometimes you have plenty of time but from the very beginning you have a vague idea about how to solve the problem and that idea came to you at every stage of the design process. That may be okay if you are NOT solving a wicked problem!

First of all you are dealing with an unsolved problem, so there is not previous solution to apply. Secondly those first ideas you may have, are trivial solutions without innovation. To innovate you need to go through all the Stages of creativity.

3. Which are and what happens at the four Stages of creativity?

Preparation: This first stage is all about gathering information. This is the stage where you do user research and empathize with the users in order to define the problem and your user’s needs.

Incubation: At this stage, you allow your mind to use the unconscious thought process.

💡 Illumination: This stage describe the classic “Yes! I get it”. It is essentially not just a quick moment of insight and helps you understand that it’s something you can -and should- work towards achieving.

Verification / implementation: You evaluate, analyze and bild on your idea. You then polish it to make sure that it’s both useful and novel. At this stage, you would also often choose to prototype and test your idea in order to find out if meets the user’s needs.

You must apply deferents modes of thinking and ensure you switch between and mix them appropriately to produce unconventional combinations that lead to innovative thinking and ideas to achieve the best results.

4. Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking occurs in the early stages of your creative ideation sessions. In this divergent phase is a time for disruptive and lateral thinking where it’s important that you get lots of new ideas for your wicked problem. The quantity of ideas is more important than the quality.

↔️ Lateral thinking

This is one of the divergent thinking mode you use to investigate wider, not deeper. It involves solving problems through an indirect and creative approach. The purpose of lateral thinking is to break out of rigid thought patterns, challenge assumptions and seek alternatives to generate unpredictable ideas.

Lateral thinking requires you to stand back, look at the big picture and understand concepts.

How to think 🤔 divergently — 5 Ideation Methods

Maybe you know your area so well that it’s hard to see it from a new perspective. Therefore is always a good idea to change the way you think by using one of these methods:

Bad ideas

Image of Homer from The Simpson trying a make up gun on Marge as a representation of a bad design.

Is an ideation method you can use both for ideation and to train your divergent thinking skills.

You might wonder why it’s a good idea to spend your valuable time thinking about bad ideas. Bad ideas help you tap into lateral thinking where the purpose is to break out of rigid thought patterns and to generate unpredictable ideas that were previously unknown.

  1. Write down as many bad ideas for the topic you are working on.
  2. Analyze what’s bad about your ideas. What is bad about this idea? Why is this a bad thing? Are there any other things that share this feature but are not bad? If so, what’s the difference?
  3. Analyze what’s good about your ideas. What is good about this idea? Why is this a good thing? Are there any other things that share this feature but are not good? If so, what’s the difference?
  4. Make your ideas better. Are there good aspects you want to keep? Are there bad aspects you want to change? What if the context were different?

Arbitrary Constraints

Is a great method to inspire ideation and think outside of the box, because you push yourself to think about the idea or product you’re working on in new ways when you place arbitrary constraints on your ideation.

Adding the constraint helps you to think more clearly, more concretely and often more creatively.

  1. Write down 10–20 arbitrary constraints (e.g. “use while bicycling” or “to be used by a blind person”).
  2. Think about the idea or product you’re working on and then pick a random constraint on it. For example, a public transportation… “that you can use only at night”.
  3. Come up with as many ideas as possible for your product that works with the arbitrary constraint. For example, the service can have beds 🛏 inside.
  4. Look through your ideas and consider how each idea could make sense without the arbitrary constraint. How many users take a bus during night? Are they coming back to their homes? How much time they spend traveling? Are the seats confortable enough? What happen if they fell asleep?

Examples of arbitrary constraints: can be used while bicycling … can be used by a blind person … something we can create in 1 week … can be used by a 3-year-old … can be used no matter what your language is … can be used by multiple users at the same time … can be used underwater/while in water … something we can create without a budget … can be used in complete darkness … can be used with no hands … can be used with no internet connection … must have physical controls


With this method you explore what happens when you remove what’s most essential about a product or service to generate new ideas .

When you set up a constraint like this, you force yourself to think about new uses that you might not have thought about for the original product. Write down which is the most essential characteristics and take it from there.

  1. Choose a product or a service and figure out, “What’s the essential characteristic?” Think of a concrete feature, not something abstract. (e.g. a car with no engine).
  2. Imagine what the product would be like without that essential characteristic.
  3. Write down your ideas for what the product without the essential characteristic could be used for — or imagine other contexts in which it could be used.
  4. Then consider your original product again. Could you make any improvements or come up with any new features inspired by the ideas you generated in step 3?

Random Metaphors

It’s a great method when you want to think more broadly about the idea or product you’re working on.

  1. Pick a random item in your surroundings or a random word in a dictionary. Write down as many attributes and associations as you can think of for the object you’ve picked (e.g. a tree and transportation).
  2. The thing you just picked is a good metaphor for an item/word/concept you’re working on. Come up with an explanation for how the thing you picked is a good metaphor.
  3. Use the metaphors you came up with to improve or change your product or service.

Brilliant Designer of Awful 💩 Things

Another image of Homer. This time at the launch of Homer car as a representation of a horrible design.

This method helps you to see the positive sides of the problem to ensure that we fully understand it before you make changes to a design and to help you ideate about ways to improve the product beyond just fixing what is wrong with it. Use this method when you work to improve a design or product that has one or more known problems.

  1. Write down the features which are problematic in your product or idea.
  2. Analyze why each of the features you wrote down is problematic.

3. Imagine that each of the problematic features was designed for a good reason. Then try to come up with reasons for why the feature was designed the way it was.

4. Consider the good reasons in step 3. Is there a grain of truth in some of the good reasons that you need to consider when you create the new idea or design?

⛈️ Brainstorming

I think you already know what brainstorming is about…

A creative idea needs to be both novel and useful. The next part of the creative process is to analyze, evaluate, filter, clarify and modify your ideas. This will help you turn your ideas into a useful and fruitful solution. After exploratory divergence, analytic convergent activities will help you identify creative solutions that are both novel and fit for your overall purpose.

5. Convergence: How to be creative through analytical thinking

Convergent thinking occurs towards the end of ideation sessions ideas, group them into themes, pick out common threads and ultimately decide upon winners and losers. This convergent phase is therefore where you make decisions through vertical thinking using the lenses of viability.

↕️ Vertical thinking

It’s based on logic. It’s best to use vertical thinking after the initial divergent stages of ideation. You should use this kind of thinking towards the end of your ideation sessions when you need to choose one or more specific ideas and identify the most appropriate solutions.

Convergent Thought — 3 convergent ideation methods

A creative idea needs to be both novel and useful so, the next part of the creative process is to analyze, evaluate, filter, clarify and modify your ideas. This will help you turn your ideas into a useful and fruitful solution.

Embrace Opposites

People tend to think in dichotomies or opposites because it simplifies a more complex reality. It’s just one of the many strategies we use in everyday life to be able to make quick distinctions and decisions.

  1. Create an overview of the different categories or opposites you have in a current design problem. For example Bike and Scotter.
  2. Dissolve the categories and ask yourself “In what ways can my design be both bike and skate?”. In the most obvious sense, it can’t. Your users either use a bike or a skate on your service. But are there any situations where it can? For example, a scooter is in some ways in between the two. You use it while standing, but it has a handlebars like a bike.
  3. List all the overlaps you find.
  4. Go through your list and consider how big the overlap for each item is. A good way to do this is to draw a two-dimensional coordinate system with an x and y axis and place the items on your list there. For example, a scooter is probably midway between a bike and a skate, but a skate roller is closer to a skate than a bike.
  5. Consider which consequences the overlaps have for your design. How many options do you need? If your service for adult people, maybe the bike is actually the perfect device for it and you should forget about all the other options and ask your users to use only that.

🙃 Reverse your problem statement

Let’s say you wanted to help people become less addicted to driving their cars and instead you wanted to help them feel inclined to use public transportation. Then, imagine that you wanted to make people more dependent on and addicted to using their cars for going to work or visiting friends. What would that take? How can you try to make people spend even more time in their cars? How can you make it even nicer to drive the car and less attractive to use public transportation? For example, you could:

a. Simply decrease the number of bus routes in the area;

b. Ensure there’s only one bus in the morning and then one in the evening;

c. Increase the price of a bus ticket;

d. Make the routes longer.

Then, after you’ve done that, it’s time to turn those insights around — and your insight can often help you come up with a fruitful solution. For example, you could do some research and find out in which areas most people are taking the busses. Then, you could make more busses available more frequently in those areas and then offer fewer busses where there are rarely any passengers — as the users in these areas are likely to take their cars, anyway.

Three-Way Comparisons

Is a great method when you want to identify your assumptions and tacit knowledge about something. It’s a good idea to identify this tacit knowledge to fully understand your problem domain as well as limitations and errors in your knowledge and assumptions.

you choose three related designs or products and pair them up in all possible combinations to analyze how each of the designs is different from the other two.

1. Choose three designs or ideas you’re interested in. Make sure you choose those that are similar, so you/your users have to work a bit to think of differences between them.

2. Compare each design to the other two. Now it’s time to identify your own assumptions: Write down how each is different from the other two.

3. Consider the lists of attributes in relation to the domain you want to design for. Go through each list and analyze how well this idea would work in your particular context. Are there any attributes that make it a good fit? Or any attributes that make it ill-suited? Do your users have any negative assumptions about a design that might make it problematic? Could you make any changes that would make them fit better?

6. The take away!

Risk means: it can go wrong. If things can’t go wrong, they probably can’t go very right. The important things is to try and fail as quickly as possible.

You should already know that illumination doesn’t happen the moment you want. Also there are many possibilities to that moment never happen specially if you are dealing with a wicked problem that put a lot of pressure on you. To maximize your opportunities you must prepare your brain through an incubation period. During that period you must use divergent thinking methods to investigate wider, not deeper using lateral thinking to consider as many ideas as you can, even the crazy ones.

During that period, illumination can occur or not, but in case not, you have already plenty of ideas to prioritize at the convergence stage using your vertical thinking. You will end up with a potential solution to solved a really HUGE problem with a bigger grade of innovation than pre-set solution or vague ideas.

Creativity = Diversity + Structure

Innovation = Divergent < → Convergent >

Anyways it’s crucial to be ready to accepts illumination, creative thoughts and ideas when they happen. 🚽 🚿 😂

Let’s be in contact! meet me at Linkedin in/adrianoller

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