I'm studying Design. One of the concepts is Wicked Problems.

I don't understand, re: Wicked Problems: No Stopping Rule

I looked up further and found: " You can tell when you’ve reached a solution with an ordinary problem. With a wicked problem, the search for solutions never stops."

Does that mean you don't know before you actually IMPLEMENT the solution?
(I.e., we don't know if the rocket will make it to the moon unless we launch it) or that we don't know even AFTER we implement it.

And if we continue searching AFTER we deploy the solution and test, why do we keep searching? Are we always looking for a better solution?

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    Consider the following problem: "Design a new public transportation system for our city, that makes commuters happier and is more energy-friendly than the current one". This is a problem, relatively well framed, with clear KPIs. Yet it cannot be "solved", meaning that you cannot bring a definitive answer to it. You can develop solutions that are good/bad (regarding ojective KPIs) and better/worse (than other solutions). But you have no mean to say that a solution is "the-best-ever-so-I-can-stop-now". To me, this is where you draw the line between engineering and design.
    – ebosi
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 14:22
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    I see questions like this all the time on Stack Overflow. "How do I make this code as fast as possible?" Well, how many billion dollars do you want to spend on it, because I promise you, no matter how fast you make it, I can make it faster with a little more investment. The problem is that the person asking the question has forgotten to say when they know they'll be done. Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 23:59
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    You guys have the best answers, btw. If you post and explain it generally, with those answers, I'll accept that as an answer. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 10:50

4 Answers 4


The Fussy Logic of Infinite Wicked Problems

Yes, it means all of what you say. There is no exact answer or way to know your solution is final.

A wicked problem is a problem that's impossible or difficult to solve because of contradictory, incomplete and changing requirements that are difficult to recognize.

The thing with design and Wicked Problems, is that you may think you've solved a problem and got the perfect solution. However, the universe is in a constant state-of-change. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. The no stopping rule can be applied here.

According to the official meaning of "Wicked Problems", as coined by design theorist, Horst Rittel, there are 10 ten steps to identify a Wicked Problem.

As seen from the below information, it's very much fuzzy logic and infinite (no stopping rule).

So what defines a wicked problem? Horst Rittel (1930-1990), a design theorist and university professor, first coined the term “wicked problem” in ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ (1973). In the paper, Rittel details ten characteristics that describe a wicked problem:

The 10 Offical Characteristics of Wicked Problems

  1. There is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule, as in there’s no way to know your solution is final.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, they can only be good-or-bad.
  4. There is no immediate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have a set number of potential solutions.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem because the explanations vary greatly depending on the individual perspective.
  10. The planner/designer has no right to be wrong and must be fully responsible for their actions.

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    Do they give an example? I'm struggling to think that could satisfy all of those concerns. Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 14:37
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    I think you are having a Wicked Problem ;)
    – Electron
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 14:39
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    And if we continue searching AFTER we deploy the solution and test, why do we keep searching? Are we always looking for a better solution? Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 15:03
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    @ebo The new colour scheme does look more "wicked" though ;)
    – Franchesca
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 14:53
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    @Franchesca I missed the pun, indeed! thanks for the hint.
    – ebosi
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 15:21

A "Stopping Rule" is a mechanism for deciding whether to continue or stop a process on the basis of the present position and past events, and which will almost always lead to a decision to stop at some finite time.

The most obvious example I can think of would be the winning condition for a card game. In the game "snap", the game continues until only one player has cards left in their hand.

In design, you may encounter a problem that no one really understands all the requirements for. In attempting to create a solution you will continue to encounter more problems to solve, and uncover things that others did not yet think about, or have conflicting requirements for. This is a common problem in software engineering, and is why many large IT projects overrun on time and budget (and are often considered to have failed).

  • An easy example: "Making a company profitable" - There is no final solution where you stop and say "Now we have mad a Million Dollars, that is enough, we do not need to change anything in this company anymore". You can always try something new to get more profitable.
    – Falco
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 9:03
  • In that example, the criteria is met. So there is a Stopping Condition. How about "make a company successful"? In that case, your example is correct. Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 10:42
  • @ClayNichols It is easier to define what a stopping rule is than to define what it isn't. Trying to define what it means to have no stopping rule by only giving examples of things that don't have a stopping rule is in itself a "wicked problem", as you can't converge to a solution. You can only give examples that are "better", or "worse", not "true" or "false".
    – Franchesca
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 11:44
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    @ClayNichols or as profitable as possible, right?
    – Rafalon
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 13:29

The short answer

Based on the definitions provided, the reason why a wicked problem has no stopping rule is because typically you can apply a stopping rule to a problem because there an acceptable or optimal solution exists which allows you to come to a point where there is no need to continue searching or iterating on a better solution.

The long read

I guess it means that you don't really know whether you are dealing with a wicked problem, but you will know if you are not dealing with a wicked problem because you will have found a solution for it. The problem is that sometimes it is difficult to tell if the lack of a clear solution is because you haven't solved for the problem correctly or if it is just a wicked problem that you are dealing with.

If you feel like the problem that you are solving seems to be a symptom of another problem, and that there might be a catch-22 or some circular relationship it might give you a hint that you are dealing with a wicked problem. Other times you might be just lacking an important piece of information and therefore was not able to factor it into your solution.

An example

A typical wicked problem involves behavioural design involving people where there is resistance or adaptation to change. For example, if you created a solution to a behavioural problem and find that the user group simply evolves their behaviour to create another problem, and you find that each new solution gives rise to a new problem then you are potentially dealing with a wicked problem. However, it could also be that you haven't necessarily addressed the root cause of the behavioural problem, or that it is subject to random or unpredictable forces which means you are unable to work out how to factor it into the solution.

In conclusion

Nevertheless, it doesn't stop people from trying to solve such problems because as I mentioned before, you don't always know when you are dealing with a wicked problem, and it is human nature to keep trying while they think it is worth the time and effort (or sometimes because they have already invested so much time and effort).

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    Can I suggest for you to format your text a lil bit to make it more attractive to read. Those are good points but seeing an essay for an answer makes one want to skip to the shorter ones.
    – Big_Chair
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 12:06
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    @Big_Chair appreciate the comments and feedback - I should know better but sometimes the format resembles the flow of the information out of my head (i.e. unstructured) :p
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 23:27
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    Another example is this pages goal: "Designing good UI" - There is no clear definition of when an UI is good enough. You can always try to improve something and get better - no interface is perfect. - So if you try to "solve" the "interface-problem" you will never find a final solution.
    – Falco
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 9:06

A wicked problem is so large and universal that it is presumed to be impossible to ever really solve; it's simple to define/describe, but exceeds human ability to scope.

Homelessness is often considered a Wicked Problem, but it's really not (just... give people homes. It's difficult. Not impossible.) Cancer is probably a wicked problem. Pollution has become a wicked problem.

My startup seeks to address one such Wicked Problem: gun violence. (Observe: it has all 10 of the characteristics listed above.)

We're starting small. We've narrowed our focus to specifically addressing:

  • police use of lethal force
  • mass shooters
  • domestic violence
  • suicide by cop
  • terrorism of this nature
  • (Bonus! Our approach also eliminates stop-and-frisk.)

Accidental shootings? Not our jam. Gun control? Dammit Jim, I'm an engineer, not a sociologist. War? Yes, war is on our list; we think big.

If (when) we succeed at measurably reducing any one of the things on that list, we will probably win the Nobel Prize.

We'll hit our stopping point when we make war obsolete.

...Which is to say, we have no stopping point. The other way of saying "no stopping point" is, we'll continue to do this until it's no longer necessary.

Anyway, people are dying. I have to get back to work. HTH.

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    +1 I have been looking at homelessness and I guess problems relating to society and people in general have that characteristic. Good luck with the gun violence challenge - how are you trying to address it?
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 23:24
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    @OpenSorceress a flying toaster that stop bullets. this is A-MAZE-ZING! Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 11:08
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    @RobbyReindeer Just wait til you find out about the cool part :P Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 11:12

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