Wicked, wicked problems

New study in the field of service design!

Mari Suoheimo’s doctoral examination was held on 18th of September in the University of Lapland. The opponent was professor Mikko Koria from Loughborough University London and thesis supervisor was professor Kaarina Määttä.


First Suoheimo introduced us to complex and simple problems and made some examples of them. A simple problem is tying shoelaces and complex or even wicked problem is solving the Covid-19 situation. Suoheimo also pointed out that there is a lot of discussion of wicked problems in the field of service design. The talk in the field is that all design issues or problems are in fact wicked or that the concept of wicked problem is already solved. To Suoheimo’s point of view, that is not how ever the case. But she continued that almost any design problem can be turned in to a complex or wicked one. As an example she said that designing a envelope is simple design issue, but designing and developing an envelope that has zero impact on environment is already a complex issue.

An example of a wicked problem.
Source: Google free images.

In the thesis Suoheimo addresses how to approach these questions. And she said that her interest in the topic already raised in her studies in Brazil when her teacher introduced her to wicked problems that are intangible problems, just like all services usually are.

The thesis it self consists of introduction, three articles, discussion and conclusions. First article is a literature review on the Relation and Role of Service Design with Wicked Problems, second is called “Strategies and Visual Tools to Resolve Wicked Problems” and last focuses on how to apply the theory in to practice and is based on case study “Process of Mapping Challenges of Cross-Border Mobility in the Barents Region”, done with Toni Lusikka.

In the thesis she also introduces the new Iceberg model of design problems developed together with Rosana Vasques and Piia Rytilahti, co-authors of the first article. The model does not only help to understand the different levels of complexity of wicked problems but also helps to choose the approaches and tools to use in different levels.

An iceberg. The model can be seen in Suoheimo’s thesis.
Source of the photo: Goole free images.

In the beginning of the event there was a little bit definition of service design it self, like how it has evolved from hands on designing to much more complex service science. The aim of service design is to create better services. This can be done through designing a good service experience using tools like service journey, and mapping it. Suoheimo also talked about Stickdorns et all. five principles of service design. That I would like to stress that are actually newly developed to six principles: Human-centered, collaborative, iterative, sequental, real and holistic. (Stickdorn et all, 2018, 16). Suoheimo also says that the talk originates to Buchanan article on 1973 about wicked problems that started the whole debate and introduced one service science frame.

Suoheimo sees that there are four levels of design: 

1: Graphic design
2: Industrial design
3: Service design
4: System design

And points out that service design actually touches all the four levels. Service design is also not an island, it touches and goes limited with other fields too. And when in comes to complexity some fields actually understand it’s use more deeply, like social sciences. Also action research and design thinking are similar nowadays. The new double diamond process is closer to action research, and Suoheimo points out that all the models start to look the same.

The opponent Mikko Koria said that the theme of the thesis is interesting, topic and valuable if not even essential for the field. But the thesis actually raises more questions than answers, which is a wicked problem it self. He also conducts that there is a loose use of the term wicked problem in the field, it’s now a buzz word, which is a worry.

The problem with wicked problems is that in service design we are using tools that are not designed to solve wicked problems which makes the process even more painful, ’cause the process is anyway painful, not ever easy. And wicked problems can have many sides too (political, social, and so on). You first have to understand the problem to know how to solve it.

An example of wicked problem solution. Source: Google free images.

So what we need is new courses! And programs! Especially interdiciplinary courses with organizational studies and management …and more resources in the service design field.

The good news: Service designer’s role is to be an agent of change because we are able to make the change.

Author: Iiramaria Virkkala, SD student.

References and to look for more info: 

Väitös: Palvelumutoilun ikeät ongelmat

Suoheimo’s thesis

Stickdorn, M., Lawrence, A., Hormess, M. E. & Schneider, J. 2018. This is service design doing: Applying service design thinking in the real world : a practitioner’s handbook. First Edition. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Buchanan (1990) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, (Spring, 1992), pp. 5-21. The MIT Press.

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