What Kind of Problem Is It?

by Charlie Kreitzberg

Design thinking is all about solving problems. But all problems are not the same. Think about the difference between looking up a word whose meaning you don't know and finding a cure for cancer. Your approach to each would be different as would be your likelihood of success.

Knowing what kind of problem you're dealing with can suggest the best way to approach it and alert you to risks if you go off track.  A useful taxonomy for looking at problems was published by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone in their 2007 article, "A Leader's Framework for Decision Making."1 They categorized problems based on their level of order and disorder. While I find that their approach makes a lot of sense, I don't find the names they assign to the different types of problems clear, so I'll use a somewhat different terminology here.

Straightforward Problems

The most ordered type of problem is a straightforward problem. These are problems where the connection between the problem statement and the solution is clear and stable.

For example, looking up the meaning of a word you don't understand is a straightforward problem. The answer will be found in a specific place: the dictionary. The entries in the dictionary are arranged alphabetically. So you can almost certainly solve the problem by applying the straightforward procedure of looking up the word and reading the definition.

There are many straightforward problems in an organization because there is a clear decision-making process available. For example, a student pays a bill by check but the check is not honored by the bank, so the university adds a fee of $25 to the student's bill. 

Designing the User Experience for Straightforward Problems

Designing the user experience for a straightforward problem usually involves creating a user interface to a process or policy that specifies the steps you need to follow to get to a solution. Of course, the fact that there is a process in place does not mean it is a good one. So your first step should be to look at the existing practice and determine if it would benefit from change. It is possible that the environment has changed since the process was originally designed and it is no longer appropriate or beneficial to the institution. 

When designing the flow for a straightforward problem consider that the user may misunderstand the situation and apply the wrong process. A good UI can minimize that risk and it may be important to build in a way to appeal or escalate a decision so that it can be reviewed by management when needed.

Another risk is that a problem may be seen as straightforward when in fact it is more complex. This can happen when you are considering third-party solutions that are marketed as offering a complete, turnkey solution to a problem but are actually a poor fit in addressing the real problem.

Complicated Problems

While straightforward problems have one right answer, complicated problems may have many right answers. Let's say you plan to buy a new car and want to determine which one is right for you. There are many competing dimensions that you need to consider. Handling vs. gas mileage. Trunk space vs. seating comfort. Two door vs. four door. There are many factors at play and they interact in complicated ways. Reaching a decision is complicated and takes a lot of effort. Since there are probably several vehicles that would suit, you may simply throw up your hands and make a decision just to get it over with. 

Many UX problems fall into the complicated problem space. When you are designing a website or application, there are usually multiple possible designs that could work and many factors to consider. Novice vs. expert users. Mobile vs. desktop. Drop down vs. radio button. PHP vs. Java. There are an unending number of factors to consider. The goal is to come up with a solution that works really well.

Designing the User Experience for Straightforward Problems

Unlike straightforward problems, complicated problems do not have a simple path to a unique answer. Mostly you rely on expertise to come up with a good solution. You should consult people who have experience with the type of problem and can offer insight as to the best way to proceed.

However, experts create issues of their own. When you have several individuals with different expertise -- a developer, a UX expert, a visual designer, a subject matter expert and a business owner, each may have different ideas about what is important and have different assessments of risk. You may get conflicting advice. Some experts may dig in their heels, convinced of the correctness of their position. Dueling experts can result in analysis paralysis. In addition, the ideas of non-experts may be minimized where, in fact, they bring useful perspectives to the problem.

Wicked Problems

Developing a design for complicated problems may involve a lot of work but you can be confident that there is at least one right answer and you will get to it. With wicked problems (Ritel & Webber, 1973)2, you reach a new level of unpredictability because there is no assurance that a right answer exists or that you can find it. Because there is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem, you don't fully know when (or if) you've solved it.

Many of the research problems that a university undertakes are wicked problems. There is no assurance that an answer exists and it is often impossible to think through the consequences of decisions. Genetically modified organisms have the potential to change the world in good and bad ways. The social and economic upheaval that is resulting from automation and geopolitical shifts are huge challenges without clear answers or even clear ways to approach the solutions. These are all wicked problems.

One reason wicked problems are so difficult to address is that the problem itself is constantly in flux. It shifts while you are working on it and every partial solution changes the situation.

Some of the most interesting UX problems are wicked problems. Could anyone have predicted how products like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would evolve? If IBM had truly understood how personal computing would evolve, would they have handed the keys to the fledgling Microsoft? Do universities understand the long-term consequences of MOOCs? 

All of these problems have a social component. Such wicked problems offer a lot of opportunity for creativity and innovation. But to achieve this you must be willing to also tolerate failure. This argues for approaches that fail fast and a management commitment that allows for failure without demanding instant results.

Designing the User Experience for Wicked Problems

If you are facing a wicked problem, start by soliciting a lot of input from many people. Gain as many interesting and innovative ideas as possible from a diverse audience. Encourage dissent and seek diverse opinions.

Often, as you perform user research, you will identify clear needs that you can design around. These may not address the larger problem but enable you to create small nuggets that resonate with the user base and add some stability to the system. 

As elements and patterns emerge, use them to reduce ambiguity by defining aspects of the system can setting up some boundaries. Take a bottom-up approach and solve component sub-problems even when the larger picture remains murky. By doing this the problem becomes less uncertain and you have concrete elements you can build on. This approach works best in an agile development environment and requires a willingness on the part of management to avoid overly aggressive deadlines. 

Chaotic Problems

The final type of problem is the chaotic problem. Fires and active shooters are examples of chaotic problems requiring immediate command and control intervention by experts. Design thinking does not play a large role in chaotic problems because analysis and consideration of alternative solutions must be done in a very short timeframe. The single goal is to mitigate the danger as quickly as possible and minimize the damage. Expertise on the part of public safety is essential here.

Designing the User Experience for Wicked Problems

Communication is essential in chaotic problems. Design thinking can be used to set up these lines of communication in advance so that they are present and available when needed. Once a chaotic problem has been addressed, there is often a great deal of opportunity to look for innovative solutions to keep the problem from happening again.

When the danger is over, there is a window where people are open to innovative ideas and an opportunity for design thinkers to propose solutions. There is also a danger of organizational overreaction. For example, an organizational response to a security breach might be to demand a level of authentication that is too burdensome for most users. The designer can help by crafting solutions that meet the need for security while keeping them usable so that people will follow them rather than find ways to avoid them, once the pressure of the situation abates.


We've identified four types of problems: straightforward, complicated, wicked and chaotic. All of these can have UX components. The approach to each is different. Understanding the type of problem you are facing can help you structure your design thinking to come up with the best possible solution.

1 Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. A Leader's Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review,  November 2007, 1-8.

2 Ritel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973, June). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

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