Visual prototyping to understand wicked problems

We’ve previously discussed the concept of wicked problems - a problem so complex it seems insoluble. But as part of our latest research, we’ve taken considerations around wicked problems further, into an exploration of how visual mock-ups of concepts in stakeholder conversations can help us understand the wicked problem of public transport.

The Encircle team alongside some University of Sydney students designed three visual representations of potential transport projects for an urban setting, including a lights display, digital information display, and ‘bus stop of the future.’ We then took these representations to stakeholders in an effort to gain insights and understanding of what resonated and didn’t with them.

In presenting mock-ups to primary stakeholders, we learnt that they could be used as provocations of primary perspective in the wicked problems space. The reactions to such mock-ups gave us vital information about the viability or realistic implementation of our projects, and data for how we could tweak them to increase the likelihood of their being accepted. From what primary stakeholders often wanted to discuss, it was clear that many of their concerns revolved around the risks involved in prototyping on the transport network. Other sticking points were the alignment of new technologies with existing strategies and the potential for conflict between old and new strategies.

We also considered the use of visual representations as provocations of secondary perspectives – so organisational bodies one step removed from those closest to change, but who still had a stake in the change. Such organisations included advertisers and the NSW Government. From our conversations with such stakeholders, we gained important insights around visibility (e.g. one of the most important components of a bus stop was that people be visible inside it from other physical points in the area, for safety reasons), materials (eg. selected based on least likely to be damaged by vandals), and transport information (eg. what could be reasonably expected within existing contracts).

From this, we were able to discern the boundaries, design constraints and opportunities within the urban system our projects operate within. On some level, these could be considered to be ‘leverage points’ as we previously discussed when unpacking the bus stop. This also represented a shift in our understanding of what we were designing for and new realities of Sydney transport. It may be that the “best” design is not always possible – but rather “best-fit” in the context of the wicked problem of Sydney’s transport system.

A paper on this topic was presented at the Participatory Design Conference (PDC) 2014, Windhoek, Namibia