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The Problem Solving Matrix for Design- Erik Kondo

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Bad Design Has Consequences

Bad Design is like bad art in that there is always someone who loves it. But for the Disability Community, Bad Design is not like bad art which can be discretely displayed in the privacy of one’s own home. Bad Design consumes scarce public and private resources. It negatively impacts people’s lives by creating frustrating, poorly performing, and sometimes dangerous devices and methodologies. It lowers overall expectations and standards. Worst of all, Bad Design promotes myths and stereotypes which leads to more Bad Design. Due to its unique economic and social factors, the Disability Community is awash with Bad Design.


The Problem Solving Matrix is a communication and planning tool that aids the designing process of assistive technology. It is especially useful when engineering products for people with disabilities due to the inherent disconnect between the designers and the people they are engineering for.

Creating assistive technology is essentially problem solving where the device “solves” the user’s problem. In order to effectively solve problems, it is essential to know exactly what the problem is. It is also important to understand any disadvantages and unintended consequences (additional problems) that may be created by the device and/or methodology.

While this statement may seem obvious, when it comes to Group A of people solving problems for another Group B of people, there is a lot of room for misunderstandings, miscommunication, and misinterpretation due to the effect of personal bias. This is particularly true when the Group B represents people with disabilities. It is common for the designers’ bias and misconceptions regarding the lives of people with disabilities to lead them to “solve” problems that only marginally exist and/or for them to spawn a whole new set of problems. In other words, they create Bad Design.

The accepted method for minimizing this situation is to enlist the opinion of people with disabilities. While this method makes sense on paper, in practice, it is common for designers to assume that the opinion of one person with a disability represents all people with disabilities. This issue results from the view of designers seeing people with disabilities as a monolithic group that is inherently different than themselves. For example, they may interview one wheelchair user who wants a wheelchair that climbs stairs and come to the conclusion that most wheelchair users want a stair-climbing wheelchair. Or that since some wheelchair users want to use electric power for their mobility, then all wheelchair users must want to use electric power.

The root of the problem is that designers are unlikely to have in-depth knowledge of the actual, as opposed to perceived problems, that people with disabilities face. In addition, many people with disabilities only understand disability from their own limited personal experience. They too may have misconceptions regarding what they (and others with disabilities) think they need and what they really need. They may also have trouble expressing what they want/need to the designers due to poor communication skills and cultural barriers. These factors combine to make it difficult for designers to create useful assistive technology.

The Problem Solving Matrix is a tool that increases both the designers and their clients’ dialog and understanding of the problems faced and the associated solutions. It does so in a systematic manner that creates a shared understanding by putting the designer and the client on the same page. It helps insure that they are talking about the same aspect of the problem at the same time, and that both parties are viewing the solution from the same point of view.

Systemic, Situational, Personal

The horizontal rows of the Matrix deconstructs a generalized problem into a specific category in order to facilitate finding a solution. Problems can be categorized in one of three ways based on how they are viewed.

1. Problems that arise from issues that are inherent to the structure or organization of a system are systemic. These problems are due to factors built into the system. Alleviating a systemic problem requires a systemic solution.

For example, non-functioning lower limbs are a systemic problem that results in lack of personal mobility for most human beings. The human system of mobility depends primarily upon a fully functioning lower body for mobility. The lower body is subject to failure due to accident and/or disease. Since most people can use a wheelchair, the wheelchair is a systemic solution to the problem of loss of mobility for people with non-functioning lower limbs. To some degree, a systemic solution solves the problem for most people.

2. Problems that arise from a recurring combination of factors are situational. For example, a wheelchair user who has a fully or mostly functioning upper body can use a manual powered wheelchair. Among people with non-functioning lower limbs, a recurring group will be able to use a manual wheelchair. Another recurring group will also not be able (or want) to use a manual wheelchair. This group will require an electric powered wheelchair for mobility. Individually, manual and electric wheelchairs are situational solutions. Taken together, they create a systemic solution.

3. Problems that arise on an individual basis due to personal factors are personal. A personal problem can be part of a situational problem which is part of an overall systemic problem, or in some cases, not. The actual wheelchair that a person uses is a personal solution. A wheelchair needs to be customized to the user to provide the maximum amount of mobility. A wheelchair that works well for one person may not work well for another due to the individual differences between the two people.

In summary, optimizing a single wheelchair for one person is a personal solution. Innovating a new type of wheelchair for a subgroup of wheelchair users is a situational solution. Developing a mobility device for most wheelchair users is a systemic solution.

Many designers tend to rely on data from personal and situational factors to attempt to solve systemic problems. They don’t recognize the difference between personal, situational, and systemic factors. Therefore, their systemic solution is likely not to succeed. Or they attempt to apply systemic solutions to individual/situational problems which may not apply to these particular cases.

  1. Systemic and situational solutions may need to be customized to meet individual requirements.

  2. Individual solutions cannot necessarily be extrapolated into systemic or situational solutions.

Prevention, Intervention, Mitigation

The vertical columns of the Matrix organize the solution in terms of its time frame of application. A solution that is applied before the problem occurs is Prevention. It is intended to stop the problem from happening and/or reduce the rate of occurrence. A solution that is applied as the problematic event is occurring is Intervention. A solution that is applied after the event has occurred to minimize its negative consequences is Mitigation.

For example, a wheelchair is a Mitigation solution to the problem of loss of lower limb function. A medical procedure that in is applied in concert with the onset of a debilitating disease is Intervention. Whereas, protective padding for the back and spine is a Prevention solution to spinal cord injury which could lead to loss of lower limb function.

Prevention, Intervention, and Mitigation are easily translated into before, during, and after the problem. Ideally, problems should be prevented from happening, intervened upon as they are happening, and mitigated after they happen. Maximum effectiveness comes from deconstructing the problem into its time components and tackling each aspect individually. It is a rare solution that works for all three stages.

Intent, Means, Opportunity

The cells of the Matrix further deconstruct the solution into three separate components of Intent, Means, and Opportunity. Where Opportunity describes the general circumstances that allow the solution to be applied. Means refers to the specific device and/or method that enables the solution to be applied when the Opportunity is available. And Intent signifies the human motivation/desire necessary for the solution to be implemented.

When solutions involve the action of a person, that person needs to have the Intention (desire) to make the solution happen. He (or she) needs to have the physical Means (ability) to implement the intended solution, and the Opportunity (circumstances) which allow the intended and physically possible solution to be implemented.

Solutions require all three of Intent, Means, and Opportunity to be present. Frequently, a problem is the result of lacking one of these components. Therefore, the solution arises from the restoration of the missing component. But in order to restore it, you need to know it is missing. The Problem Solving Matrix helps you discover which component(s) is the root of the problem.

Getting back to the wheelchair example. Imagine a person who has lost lower limb function due to an injury. She has a wheelchair, but she doesn’t use it outside the home for recreational mobility because she feels it is too hard to push. This person has the Means and Opportunity for mobility, but her problem is due to her low level of Intent to move. The solution to her problem may involve physically optimizing her wheelchair such that it functions more efficiently. Thus, increasing her desire to engage in mobility outside her home. Or it may involve adding an electrical assist device, or maybe something else.

Now, consider someone else who uses an electric wheelchair. This person has the Means to be mobile outside. But his electric wheelchair is unable to be transported in his friend’s vehicle to a recreational area due to its large size and weight. In this case, he lacks the Opportunity to be mobile when his friend is driving. A solution may involve a smaller electric wheelchair that is transportable in regular vehicles, thereby providing him the missing Opportunity.

Finally, let’s examine a manual wheelchair user who wants to travel on bike paths near his house faster than can be done in his wheelchair. He has the Intent and Opportunity, but he lacks the means to engage in rapid mobility. The solution may involve some type of motorized wheelchair attachment that provides the Means (enables) for him to travel at a higher rate of speed than currently possible.

It is important to understand that Intent, Means, and Opportunity are dependent upon how the problem is viewed. They are not absolute. Depending upon the situation, Means and Opportunity can be closely related. In addition, they all have the potential to influence each other. Sometimes, providing the Means increases the chances of finding Opportunity and raises the level of Intent. Or more Opportunity translates to a higher level or Intent, or it makes the Means more achievable.

Who? What? When? Where? Why?

The five W’s are a reminder that problems and solutions should be examined in terms of:

Who are the people involved?

What are they doing or what do they want to do?

When are they doing it or when are they having the problem?

Where is the problem/solution happening?

Why does the problem need to be solved? Why does it matter to them?

These questions and many more can be combined with the Problem Solving Matrix to increase understanding of the overall subject, problems, and solutions.

The Need for the Matrix

Generally, long lasting and difficult problems are shrouded in confusion and are magnets for Bad Design. Examine most problems in society and you will notice a complete mismatch between the problem and solution as described and viewed by the different parties involved. On the other hand, solved problems came about from clarity of viewpoint, joint understanding, and achievable goals.

It is safe to say that people with disabilities deal with ingrained problems in society despite many people’s good intentions to try to solve them. If problems are not getting solved in a systemic manner, then there is likely a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution to rectify it and minimize occurrences of Bad Design.


The Problem Solving Matrix outlines three categories of Systemic, Situational, and Personal solutions that can be divided into three time stages of Prevention, Intervention, and Mitigation, and further deconstructed into Intent, Means, and Opportunity, and all of these aspects overlap and are interconnected.

The Problem Solving Matrix doesn’t provide solutions, it provides the Means (a tool) for examining problems/solutions in a Systemic manner. It provides the Opportunity for designers and their clients to discuss the problems/solutions interactively (Intervention) and clearly in order to reduce the chances (Prevention) of creating Bad Design.


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