Ask Velma: How Do I Solve a Wicked Problem?

Art by Danielle Selby

Art by Danielle Selby

By Valle Hansen. Originally published in Velma Magazine, November 2014

Meet the Expert—Kijana Knight Torres

“I primarily build empathy through exploration and storytelling. I try to walk in people’s shoes to find out what makes them tick—what motivates them, makes them happy, and what frustrates them. Working with designers, artists, and developers, I work to make the world a better place by creating experiences that delight and make sense in real-world contexts.” Kijana has a knack for photography, a love of breakfast tacos, a weakness for shoes and cameras, and enjoys spending time hiking Austin’s Greenbelt.


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Job title: Principal Experience Researcher
Follow @kijanaknight

In Velma’s “Wicked Problems” issue, we discuss several wicked problems and a few of the amazing individuals in Austin who are working to solve them.

But how do we figure out what the wicked problems are? Who is most affected by these problems? What research can we do to figure out how to solve them?

To help us frame this question more solidly, Velma sought out industry expert Kijana Knight Torres, Principal Experience Design Researcher at projekt202 here in Austin.

Kijana presented us with a series of techniques that she uses in design research to suss out exactly what the problems are, where the gaps exist, and what the end users really want or need. From there, she’s able to work with design teams to inform recommendations for solutions that will make the end users’ lives better and easier.

The same methodologies, Kijana posits, can be used to identify and solve wicked problems. “To solve a wicked problem,” she says, “you have to involve the people who are involved in it.” This tenet, the crux of the user experience discipline, underscores the absolute necessity of reaching the “end user.”

Step 1: Talk to everyone.

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To get started solving a wicked problem, Kijana suggests talking to as many people who touch that problem as possible. For example, in trying to create a solution to problems associated with homelessness, it would be important to talk not only to current homeless people, but also people who used to be homeless; people who are on the verge of becoming homeless; people who strive to help homeless people, like shelters and food banks.

Then, once you’ve talked to as many people as possible, catalogue everything they’ve said and start identifying trends across the individuals that have spoken to you. Here you can start to recognize areas of opportunity and major pain points, things that might be obvious but might also be a surprise. This bottom-up approach allows researches to find solutions driven by real needs, rather than suppositions and guesses.

The image here shows an affinity diagram, a tool that design researchers use to identify users’ needs, major trends, major problem areas, and guiding principles. White notes represent individual observations or statements from each user; pink notes help group similar statements together, where “everyone is saying the same thing a little bit differently.” The green notes represent higher-level categories that several user types or user segments might need, and blue offers a guiding principle for moving forward.

It is important, Kijana notes, not to try to solve the problem at this discovery stage; judgment and brainstorming ideas should be reserved for later phases of the research process.

Step 2: Identify trends & turn “everyone” into “someone.”

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The next step after engaging all the people who touch the wicked problem is to try to take a step back and identify the major user segments. It’s important not to get mired in details, as you’ll end up with too many user segments and start trying to solve for everyone who touches the wicked problem. It’s not possible, Kijana intimates, to make everyone happy.

Using everything you’ve learned from secondary research and from talking to the “real people,” create a user persona for each segment. Name the persona, give him or her qualities, goals, motivations, behaviors, and frustrations. These personas (hopefully about four or five total) will help you frame your solutions around real people and keep your eye on the prize.

Step 3: Understand the “process.”

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Now it’s time to understand the users’ workflows. Kijana does this by observing people in their natural environment and noting all the things they touch to get to their end goal. In the context of the homelessness example, she says, she would try to shadow as many of the four to five user segment types identified in Step 2 and document what they do, whom they interact with, where they receive services, and so on.

Step 4: Start designing a solution.

From this point, you have everything you need to start solving the problems. Kijana points out that it’s not a science to solve problems, whether wicked problems or design problems; it’s an iterative process that requires a great deal of fine-tuning and finesse, regardless of the research you’ve done. These techniques, she warns, are not foolproof. Even though they involve the end users, she says, “all my recommendations have a big asterisk. We haven’t seen everything and thus are making recommendations based on best practices and conjecture based on a sliver of fact.”

Kijana stresses that “the world’s biggest problems deserve the attention of both people who know how to frame and think about problems as well as those who live in and with the problem day in and day out.