A wicked problem stands in contrast to a “tame” problem; it’s a social and/or cultural challenge where solutions are not true-or-false, right-or-wrong, but instead are better or worse. It may have unforeseen outcomes, is multi-causal, involves changing attitudes and behaviors, and is socio-culturally complex. And the definition of the problem itself depends on who is doing the defining.
Providing universal access to clean water is an example of a wicked problem area, which ultimately needs to be contextualized, reduced, and articulated as a manageable problem set. During the design process, a team could collaborate with lawyers, politicians, theologians, hydrologists, activists, corporate executives, environmental scientists, labor unions, physicians, international aid agencies, processing plant technicians, as well as a diverse public. In the end, “solutions”—products, interfaces, processes, graphics, experiences, structures, etc.—are developed with an understanding of the larger system, that are sensitive for the competing demands of broad stakeholders, and that make a meaningful contribution to the broader problem.
See: H.W.J. Rittel and M.M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2, June 1973, pp. 155–69.