World Wide Welcome

Wicked Problems: An exercise in design thinking

“From her beacon-hand glows a worldwide welcome;” from ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus. Photo by Avi Werde on Unsplash

A Wicked Problem is a challenge that is commonly defined as “ [a problem that] avoids straightforward articulation and is impossible to solve in a way that is simple or final.” Climate change, global hunger, and immigration are textbook examples of wicked problems. While the size and scope of these types of problems can be absolutely daunting, it does no good to avoid them. President John F. Kennedy summed up the spirit of tackling wicked problems during his Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

Spine-tinglingly inspiring

Kennedy goes on:

“[T]hat goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

And if that kind of energy doesn’t get you pumped to solve a problem, I just don’t know what will.


In the same spirit of JFK, my project partner Delawit Assefa - the other half of the fictional design firm Devious Designs - and I were tasked with designing a solution to the wicked problem of immigration. We began by narrowing our focus within this problem to avoid being overwhelmed and to increase the likeliness that we would provide something of value. We chose to focus on the subject of finding employment as an immigrant within the U.S.

First, a bit of context:

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recieved7.6 million immigration forms in 2019 alone.

By the end of 2019, USCIS had a backlog totaling 147,252 pending applications for employment-based permanent residency status, otherwise known as a Green Card.

During Q4 of the 2019 Fiscal Year, USCIS received 26,433 applications for employment-based green cards in the final quarter of FY2019, down sharply from 32,530 in the same period a year previously. In total, officials approved 13,709 employment green cards.

17.8% of employment-based green card applications were denied during this time — just shy of 1 in every 5 applicants.

Wait times can vary as widely as 7–33 months.

These statistics paint a broader narrative, but they do not offer much insight into the lived experience of navigating the U.S. immigration system. For that, there is no substitute for just talking to people. And that is precisely why the starting point of design thinking methodology is to cultivate empathy with the potential user — the person/people who you as the designer are designing for.

Don’t let the diagram fool you: the process is anything but linear.


With a general idea in mind of what we wanted to learn more about, Delu and I began a dual-pronged approach to diving into the experience of someone navigating the U.S. Immigration system. Our methods consisted of the following:

  1. Surveys — who doesn’t love a good survey? I’ve relied on surveys in the past for a number of projects and invariably I have found some anxiety around this. Am I asking the right questions? Will anyone even do this? Oh god, is that a typo? They’re going to think I’m a hack! Luckily, I’ve also learned that anxiety is rarely a wise advisor. Time and again people DO take the survey, I DO learn from their answers, and occasionally, yes, that IS a typo. Surveys offer broad and easily measurable insight into a user’s potential experience. But they do fall short when it comes to offering a human side to the data. That's where the second half of our research methodology comes in
  2. Interviews — For me, interviewing is a lot of fun. I enjoy learning from the perspectives of others and a direct conversation is one of the best ways to do that. With that said, interviews pose their own challenges. It’s easy to unintentionally ask leading questions or to ask questions that may not get at the heart of what it is you are trying to learn. I prefer to limit questions to 5 or 6 during an interview, and allow lots of time for the interviewee to speak at length as often as possible. I find that this allows for organic conversation and will produce more candid responses, which is what you as a designer are looking for. It also forces me to be intentional with the wording of each question, making it less likely that the questions will be frivolous. It does the design process no good to hear only what the interviewee believes you want to hear, rather than what they actually think, feel, and do.

The quantitative data of the survey alongside the qualitative data from the interviews combine to provide much deeper insights than either two forms of research could offer on their own. Combining this with secondary research, like the contextual bullet points I shared with you earlier, further enhances our understanding of the user experience — in this case, the Immigrant Experience.


Research is great, but it can be a bit overwhelming to make sense of all this new information. There are strategies within design thinking that are enormously helpful when it comes to analyzing these findings. One of these is known as affinity mapping.

Josh Bechtler-Levin has an excellent example of an affinity map in this article where he proposes a new feature for SoundCloud. Below is an image of the affinity map that Delu & I co-created. Next time, I plan to borrow some aspects from Josh Bechtler-Levin's affinity map, like more intentional color coding while grouping.

Affinity Map created by Delawit Assefa and your’s truly.

Another useful technique for making sense of user data is called an empathy map.

As you can see, the affinity map taught us a rather valuable lesson about our research methodology — somehow we missed out on the valuable context of what users have heard about the immigration process from others and the media.

Working through an affinity map can really help put everything that you as a designer have learned about the user’s challenge into perspective — the user’s perspective that is. And while empathy is great for organizing data around how a user might experience a challenge or task, they are not optimal for sharing that perspective with others, such as project stakeholders.

This is where a User Persona becomes valuable.

Hello, Mia

User Personas like the one Delu and I created (above) are handy artifacts that can help designers communicate their decisions and intentions with stakeholders and product development teams as well as other designers.

User Journey Mapping is another design artifact that can help pinpoint the moments in a user’s experience with a product or service where designers can add value by removing a pain point or optimizing a task/decision for the user.

So. Many. Pain Points.

After creating this journey map, it started to become fairly clear that one of the most immediate opportunities for us to add value as designers would be to find a way to minimize the pain points associated with the paperwork application process the immigrants to the U.S. must complete in order to gain permanent residency in the country.

Up until now, we had taken a broad approach to the topic of immigration & employment, but now we would begin to narrow our focus further. We were nearly ready to begin ideating for potential solutions, but first, it was time to more clearly define the problem that we would attempt to solve.

The Double Diamond framework outlines the concepts of “Divergent Thinking” and “Convergent Thinking” which takes place over the course of the Design Thinking process.

We settled on two problem statements:

  1. Young adults who want to immigrate to the U.S. need a way to plan their immigration process because they may lack awareness of the different ways to immigrate to the U.S.
  2. Immigrants who applied for visas need a way to keep track of timelines and documents because the process of applying for EAD, visas, and permits causes frustration and confusion.

In order to get our brains ready to start thinking about solutions instead of problems, we then reframed these problem statements into “How might we” statements:

  1. How might we help young adults who are interested in moving to the U.S. become more aware of the various immigration options so that they can plan for their immigration to the U.S. effectively
  2. How might we assist immigrants by reducing confusion and frustration related to keeping track of the EAD, Visa, permit process?

There, that sounds a bit more empowering. Now we can start brainstorming.


We went through multiple rounds of brainstorming with both of these problem statements. We started by timeboxing ourselves to three minutes and writing down as many solutions as possible on our own. Next, we shared our lists and combined similar ideas. We asked ourselves what the most expensive version of a solution might be to make sure that we were thinking big. We even flipped the script and spent 3 minutes trying to come up with the worst and most frustrating solutions, which was funny and helped us see what we may want to avoid.

Now that we had a bunch of half-baked ideas on paper (well digital “paper” anyway) we could start narrowing our focus yet again. We used a method known as MoSCoW prioritization (Must have, Should have, Could have, Won’t have) to organize our ideas according to which ones best addressed the problem and “how might we” statements we had thought of earlier. The final MoSCoW diagram looked like this:

MoSCoW — Must have, Should have, Could have, Won’t have.

Things were starting to come together and it felt like we had a pretty clear idea of what we thought a potential solution would look like.


Building a custom or unique solution takes time, energy, and money. Companies and organizations run the risk of wasting all three of these precious resources if they don’t take time to ensure they are going after the right solutions. One of the most reliable methods for avoiding that costly mistake is to start small and test your concept with an MVP — Minimum Viable Product.

Not that kind of MVP…

Design thinking is A LOT like science. In fact, the blend of artistic creativity, pragmatic value creation, and scientific inquiry is what drew me to the field. One of the integral ingredients to a scientific experiment is a hypothesis — a prediction of what results the scientist expects the experiment may yield. In the discipline of User Experience design, an MVP serves the same function as the hypothesis in a scientific experiment.

Here’s our MVP statement:

Color-Coded and everything.


Testing fell outside of the scope of this project, but that did not stop us from defining our metrics for success … and failure.

Failure metrics are just as important as success metrics, if not more so. Both metrics will help inform pivots and iteration on the concept.

Whether or not a hypothesis is falsifiable, meaning it can be measured and proven wrong, is the most important criteria of a hypothesis. The same is true of an MVP as it’s entire purpose is to provide the most basic form of the tool for the user in order to verify whether it actually solves the problem or not — or if the problem even really exists in the first place!

Here are the testing criteria that we designed for our MVP:

And as a bonus, here is a simple mock-up of what this tool might look like:

World Wide Welcome: an interactive timeline to help manage the immigration process.

This challenge was a lot of fun to work on. Tackling big issues is daunting, but it is also extremely inspiring. I’ve not personally dealt with the immigration process, and while I know people who have immigrated to the U.S. I have not really taken the time to learn about that process in detail. My project partner Delu on the other hand has a far more intimate familiarity with the subject than I do. You should go check out her article to see this process through her perspective.

Product Designer — Coffee Drinker. Let’s create together:

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