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Taming the ‘Wicked’ Problem of Creative Design

I absolutely love the definition of a ‘wicked problem’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem

It describes the majority of research problems that I work on. There is an objective that appears just out of reach, a real client-need, and limited resources. Formally, it is defined as:

“Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Interestingly enough, much of the fog surrounding these problems can be dispelled by putting some effort into identifying the goals of the users, and creating task analysis models around the plans that are likely to be followed. Simple, non-development intensive efforts such as storyboarding and Wizard of Oz experiments.

Considering that most user experience is based on contextual issues, and their perceptions of their interactions with the GUI, it would be irresponsible to not put some extra effort into understanding how to support the user with your software (rather than building yet another expensive software project that is destined to not be used due to user rejection, and the subsequent price and time overruns).

The development of a user interface is an issue that needs a lot of attention. For example, Sutton and Sprague conducted a survey in IBM in 1978 [1], which revealed that 50% of the designer’s time was spent on designing the user interface of a system. The same result was also confirmed by a more recent survey by Myers and Rosson [2] in 1990s.

So before you spend that six months pouring your sweat, blood and tears into an effort that will not bear fruit, why not spend a week to work with the users to make sure that you’re building the right thing (and set up the validation criteria), and that you are building it right (and set up the verification criterian)?

Trust me, you’ll thank me if you do this. It saves grief, and keeps your professional reputation intact.

[1] J.A. Sutton & R.H. Sprague Jr. A study of display generation and management in interactive business applications, (Rep. RJ2392), IBM, 1978.

[2] B.A. Myers & M.B. Rosson. Survey on user interface programming. CHI’92 Conference Proceedings of the Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, (1990), pp. 195-202.

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