Challenges of design research on wicked problems

I’ve noticed that some of the same challenges of design research are more pronounced when doing design research about wicked problems or for the social sector.

  • You often need an additional pre-research phase up-front to get your “head in the game.” Last quarter, we researched recycling and my group focused on farmer’s markets; since I’ve been to farmer’s markets before and felt comfortable at them, I already had past experiences in that space and could wrap my head around the “problem.” When we started our research project with ARCH about homelessness, I needed those first couple of weeks to get into the space—physical, metaphorical, and psycho-mental-emotional—before I even start to wrap my head around our research plan. We should have just all spent a full day at ARCH observing and talking to people, bootcamp-style or experience-audit-style, much earlier on…to force us to dive in.
  • You have to be much more careful about ethics. Any time you’re working with at-risk populations, you have to take more care with consent, compensation, and what you end up doing with the data that you gather. When you’re shadowing a case manager and her client meeting rather than an office worker using software, confidentiality becomes much more of an issue. On a purely logistical level, this also means you just end up with a lot less video and photography, too, because you’ll find yourself in more situations where it seems inappropriate to be recording things.
  • Contacting people and scheduling interviews is more difficult. On the one hand, we have bureaucracies and tangled systems and super busy people to schedule interviews with. On the other hand, with some of our populations and the large organizations that serve them, we’re having to get our research approved ahead of time. On yet another hand, we’re talking to people who often don’t have addresses or phone numbers; they may be transient or only temporarily in Austin. Participatory homework assignments, cultural probes, or even follow-up questions becomes trickier.
  • Trust is hard-earned. Some of our research surrounds truly challenging parts of other people’s lives, and they may not want to talk to us about it with us—especially if we can’t do anything to help in the immediate future, or if they could be spending that time telling the same story to a case manager. And some of the people we’re working with (especially now that Kat and I are narrowing our focus to women who are experiencing homelessness) have had to build up walls in order to survive. We want to hear their stories, and we want to drill down into the nitty gritty details and the whys and wherefores…but if we only have a one-shot half-hour conversation, we might not be able to get as deep as we need to for the most valuable insights.
  • Focus is hard (1). Tangents and stories and sidetracked conversations abound. Because we’re trying to be sensitive to our “interviewees,” and because we want to earn their trust, we find ourselves trying to get as much information as we can while carrying on informal conversations with many of them.
  • Focus is hard (2). Focus means a small slice of the pie. It’s the only way to have true impact, but it still feels bad to ignore the rest of the pie. Plus, these problems are so entangled and co-existing, that’s it’s hard to discern which small part of the system is the most interesting or the most impactful or the most entangled or the most culpable.
  • “You’re from the suburbs, aren’t you, sweetie?” You’re going to be outside your comfort zone, you’re going to feel really naïve, you’re probably going to have to confront your own inner assumptions, biases, stereotypes, monsters at some point. You’ll be talking to people who you never normally would talk to. It’s great, it’s uncomfortable, it sucks, it’s tremendously valuable, it’s hard, it’s awesome, it’s enlightening, it’s inspiring, it’s scary, it gets easier, it’s empowering, and it’s still hard.
  • Fine line between helping and rescuing. I think we’ll be grappling with this one for a long time. But it’s really hard not to perpetuate the us vs. them mentality. And it’s really hard to keep that mindset of “I want to step in and help you” in check. I think most of us are on-board with the “design with” and co-creation methods in theory, but it’s much harder to put them into practice when so many external factors push you in the opposite direction.
  • Not having a real client. For better or for worse, projects are much more contained when you have a real client who’s paying you for your work. Defining focus or making decisions become easier when you have some constraints to work within. Having that relationship with a company or organization also helps with making in-roads in scheduling interviews or contextual inquiries.

Like I said, it doesn’t feel like these challenges are unique to our design research. They just feel more amplified because we are 1) new to research and 2) working in a new sector. I’m curious if others in the class are feeling similarly or if they’ve come up with their own unique challenges because of their specific focus area.

2 thoughts on “Challenges of design research on wicked problems”

Hi Christina,

It’s great to have someone talking about the big issues (and the really small ones too like scheduling interviews)…

It’s interesting the point about ‘are we really helping’..there’s a great article by Ivan Illich which illustrates this point, called ‘The road to hell and back is paved with good intentions”

I just did a talk on this sort of social design meets ethics, at Servdes, a service design conference in Sweden. You can see it here,

Would be good to talk more and great to see you picking up on these issues! Sarah

thanks for those links. i will definitely check those out. the work yall are doing with snook is cool too. would definitely love to chat more and bring some of that service design thinking to the u.s!

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