Service Design

Is service design the silver bullet to all wicked problems?

Published on
Jan 2, 2023

Before we set out to solve wicked problems, let’s refresh our memories on what makes them ‘wicked’. Wicked problems are unique, each one is a symptom of another wicked problem, and a ‘final solution’ probably does not exist. Design thinking is connected to wicked problems due to the work of Richard Buchanan. His research chalked out methods for readjusting the approach to wicked problems following human-centric and hands-on methods.

Many have set out to solve recurring long-term social and cultural problems that they find to be impossible to resolve in one setting. Wicked problems are affected by interdependent factors that always seem to be in flux. Grasping the extent of a wicked problem can be challenging. Common examples of wicked problems are terrorism, poverty, climate change, and tax avoidance. These are issues that persist despite our concern and efforts towards alleviating them.

Each wicked problem takes root through varying perspectives. Let’s take the case of poverty, which has a clear economic cause and effect. The social and political aspects also play a very important role in how poverty persists or can be solved. Other disciplines like design, engineering, and anthropology can also help us understand poverty and provide opportunities to alleviate it. A multidisciplinary approach is critical to deeply understanding and unraveling wicked problems.

The Silver Bullet?

Here is the question we set out to answer at Ideate Innovation HQ: “Is service design the silver bullet to all wicked problems?” Our team combines expertise from various disciplines. Our diverse backgrounds, skills, and experience enables us to understand wicked problems from different lenses and allows for more creative and holistic problem-solving.  

Service design attempts to provide solutions through the human perspective. The intricate web of a wicked problem is laid out to understand how each aspect affects the human experience. Service design helps identify common roots for a problem, and works towards resolving pain points through design intervention. The general goal for designers is to understand the behaviours and lived experiences of a problem and provide actionable improvements, rather than come up with a “one-shot” solution. 

We look to our diverse and talented team of designers and ask them two questions:
1. What aspect of a wicked problem have you worked on a project on? Did you try to resolve it or circumvent it?

2. In your experience, how does service design as a discipline help in dealing with wicked problems?

Ahmed Hashmi
Background: Information Systems

Hashmi is the Head of Design Experience at Ideate Innovation. He applies design thinking to improve information systems and positively impact people’s lives. His aim as a designer is to adopt an interdisciplinary approach that enriches his work.

1. What aspect of a wicked problem have you worked on a project on? Did you try to resolve it or circumvent it?

Unemployment. Specifically, unemployment of the youth in Pakistan. My hypothesis was that tech employers were looking for skills that fresh computer science graduates simply did not have. I decided to focus on the skills-gap aspect of the wicked problem of unemployment. In an attempt to resolve this, together with the CEO of Arbisoft, we set up a scholarship fund for promising, underprivileged graduates from all over Pakistan. This scholarship set out to find 100 unemployed people, have them complete a Tech Nanodegree from Udacity, and mentor them on soft skills; all with the hope of having them find employment.

2. In your experience, how does service design as a discipline help deal with wicked problems?

One of the key ways that service design helps deal with wicked problems is by using a systematic and structured approach to problem-solving. Wicked problems are by nature, complex and multifaceted, and they often have multiple stakeholders with competing interests. Service design provides a framework for understanding and addressing these complexities. It does so by breaking down the problem into smaller, more manageable parts and identifying the key factors that contribute to the problem.

Sehel Khandwala
Background: Geography and Social Innovation 

Sehel leads the Service Design team at Ideate Innovation. Her background in geography and social innovation gives her a unique insight into understanding people and their interaction with communities, cultures, and the environment when designing interventions. 

1. What aspect of a wicked problem have you worked on a project on? Did you try to resolve it or circumvent it?

I have worked on the problem of homelessness. This was a project that was carried out while I was working in the UK. The introduction of the Homelessness Reduction Act in 2017 emphasized preventing homelessness among residents, as opposed to intervening once a resident has become homeless. Known risk factors for homelessness include overcrowding, family problems, difficulties with tenancy, finances, or mental and physical health. We worked with Westminster City Council to develop a hyper-local understanding of homelessness. We took an ethnographic approach to engage with residents of very low income who had experienced significant life challenges. We mapped existing assets and networks in the community to see where people go for help and support and immersed ourselves in these spaces. We carried out interviews to understand their lives and support networks, using various visual tools to aid the conversation sensitively. Based on our research we developed personas for different types of residents at risk and segmented them according to: personal agency (how active a resident is to impact their situation), and level of needs (such as whether someone needs specific mental health support or more general activities to take part in). Thinking about residents’ in these terms helped the Council better understand how their services can target different people and needs. 

Our research reinforced that homelessness is not only a problem of housing. It highlighted the value of intervention around wider aspects of well-being, including social isolation, improving social capital, widening social networks, volunteering, developing skills, and supporting people into employment to reduce the risk of future homelessness. We provided recommendations for how best to engage at-risk residents, where to reach them, and what services could be valuable to provide to them at an early stage. This did not solve the problem of homelessness entirely, I do not think that is possible, however, it did offer potential interventions for a particular community and its local context.

2. In your experience, how does service design as a discipline help deal with wicked problems?

Working on wicked problems requires a deep understanding of the stakeholders and systems involved. Service Design tools and methodologies are grounded in being human-centric, and uncovering the root cause of problems from the lived experiences of the people directly impacted by the problem. This allows us to gather first-hand insights into the real cause and effects of aspects of wicked problems. Designers also use an iterative approach which helps with approaching hard-to-define or unknown problems. This allows us to research certain hypotheses, reframe problems based on learnings, prototype, test solutions and re-iterate them based on real-world feedback.

Nayyab Naveed
Background: History and Economics 

Nayyab is a Service Designer with a degree in History and a strong understanding of Economics. Both these disciplines help her associate meaningful social and cultural context to the array of problems faced by the communities she works with.

1. What aspect of a wicked problem have you worked on a project on? Did you try to resolve it or circumvent it?
Gender inequality has got to be one of the wicked problems I’ve worked on time and again. Working on understanding gender dynamics and how they play a role in women’s relationship with technology has something that I’ve tried going in depth in all my projects. This is something that is unique and complex to Pakistan as most women operate under a particular type of patriarchy here which includes limiting women’s interaction with anything foreign, which in most cases, comes in the form of technology. Women are not allowed to use phones, or when they have phones, are not allowed to use social media or be seen with a phone in their hand. Resolving this problem involves first fully understanding why the barrier to technology exists and then figuring out how best to make technology accessible to women in a way that isn’t threatening to their male family members.

2. In your experience, how does service design as a discipline help deal with wicked problems?

Empathy and understanding are at the core of service design. And these two factors are what help deal with wicked problems as well because without deeply understanding the problem; by looking at how it plays out in its natural habitat and what are the factors perpetuating the problem, we won’t be able to solve it.

Muhammad Yahya Aftab
Background: Political Science

Also a Service Designer at Ideate, Yahya's research and studies in Political Science serve as an integral tool in Ideate’s design arsenal. He works with agricultural, financial, and tech-based clients and applies his understanding of political dynamics to introduce viable design interventions.

1. What aspect of a wicked problem have you worked on a project on? Did you try to resolve it or circumvent it?

We were working with farmers for an agri-tech solution, they were using technology to digitize the supply chains and formalize some parts of the supply chain e.g. they had mostly cash payments that took too long, so they were looking for a mobile app solution that would help farmers get paid. The problem was that the mobile money registration process was not suitable for farmers as hard labor made it difficult to scan the farmers’ fingerprints. The company was encouraged to send better biometric machines to help farmers. The farmers were encouraged to bring their sons who were tech-savvy and could help them register for the mobile money app.

2. In your experience, how does service design as a discipline help deal with wicked problems?

Service design as a discipline helps you unpack wicked problems, as there is usually no clear method of understanding the problem. It helps you analyze the problem in the first place. A lot of other methods would not help you see the wicked problem in its entirety or understand how it presents itself. It could be a black box of problems where designers are sitting and figuring out what is wrong or they’ll have their own theories regarding it. What service design does is that it removes that smokescreen between the user and designer. This enables designers to comprehend the wicked problem and attempt to provide solutions and take action towards resolving them.

Sara Obaid Ul Islam
Background: Economics and Psychology 

Sara is a part of the Service Design team at Ideate. Her background in  Economics and Psychology enables her to work on digital and financial inclusion in Pakistan. She encourages behavioral change through slight nudges in the design interventions she works on with her knowledge of consumer behavior.

1. What aspect of a wicked problem have you worked on a project on? Did you try to resolve it or circumvent it?
My work for Balanced Energy Protein (initiated by Bopinc and funded by the Gates Foundation) is a nutrition support program for women who are pregnant or lactating and belong to rural areas in Sindh and Punjab. What we want to see through the project is the willingness to buy this product among these women. The program makes ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) for malnourished women so that they get the calories and nutrients they need. With such food provisions, they will have healthier pregnancies and babies. The wicked problem we are attempting to fix here is sexism and lack of access to healthcare. Women do not get the nutrients they need as men are prioritized. Since we are providing a product, it can partly be seen as a solution. However, the challenge is trying to convince the men of the households and other decision-makers as these women are generally not the ones making purchase decisions.

2. In your experience, how does service design as a discipline help deal with wicked problems?

I do not feel Service Design is the silver bullet as these problems require a structured intervention at a societal level. The product would only be able to have a minuscule effect on the entire wicked problem itself. It is only an initiation that could serve as a basis for convincing similar communities in Pakistan and around the world.

The Verdict

Our team has deliberated how service design is an action-driven approach and its effects are positive while dealing with wicked problems. However, the consensus seems to be that service design is not the ‘perfect’ method. More importantly, wicked problems due to their nature cannot be resolved through a single approach or intervention.

The primary lesson here is that a multifaceted  problem requires a multi-disciplinary approach. A collection of methodologies and expertise the understanding and resultantly the confidence to provide logical steps toward resolving wicked problems. We have also learned that where an attempt at a solution is not possible due to a lack of time or resources, circumventing the apparent problem is a viable option. Since the goal is to create fuller, more meaningful lives for people through design, providing relief through smaller interventions is certainly a path to progress.