Notes on Cynefin for Designers

(from James O’Brien’s 6/26/16 post on, link here)

First things first–cynefin is a Welch word that’s pronounced K’nevn. Thanks to James’ post, I can see more clearly how I could use this in my UX practice

James has customized Dave Snowden’s concept of cynefin (which I summarized this last summer) specifically for designers


Essentially, cynefin is a framework for assessing problems and possible solutions

Evaluating your work flow against these categories can help your identify true priorities, see where more research is required and figure out where “good enough” is actually good enough

Cynefin categorizes problems into 5 types:

  • Disorder
    • This is the pot that holds all your unexamined features
    • The goal is to move problems out of here and into the other four categories
    • Since they are unexamined, working on features here carries lots of uncertainty and risk—but is often where designers work from!
  • Obvious
    • These features are very common, the known knowns
      • These features are so simple, they aren’t worth trying to innovate or revolutionize
      • Examples: one-click unsubscribe, basic forms
    • What’s are the existing best practices?
    • Technique: JustFuckingDoIt) (sense, categorize, respond)
  • Complicated
    • A common feature with specific product implications for my product, the known unknowns
      • These are common features but they will make demands of your product that can’t be predicted
      • Examples: interface widgets, error messages, alerts
    • How can I use existing patterns and rules of thumb to solve the problem?
    • Technique: Explore in design (sense, analyse, respond)
  • Complex
    • An uncommon feature specific to my product that I need to learn more about, the unknown unknowns
      • These are things that have never been done before, or that require severe disruption
      • Example: These features are your competitive differentiators and may be where your business really makes it money
    • How can I gather more information about the problem? This requires an open mind to new knowledge and creative discipline in the discovery process
    • Technique: Prototype and test (probe, sense, respond)
  • Chaotic
    • The feature may/may not have value depending on the unknowable unknowns
      • These are usually fires that need to be put out immediately. They become priority #1 otherwise they will continue to disrupt or even invalidate everything else
      • Examples: Research shows a pivot is required, or a stakeholder pulls a whole new set or requirement out of the air
    • How can I gain confidence in the feature’s value? Do I need to test the market’s response to it?
    • You act first in order to get outcomes to help shape better solutions—basically Lean UX
    • Technique: Research and lean MVP (act, sense, respond)

Note: there’s a fold between Obvious and Chaotic—things can easily slip from simplicity to chaos through complacency or overthinking

Dividing problems into these categories can also help with T-shirt sizing exercises

  • Obvious and Complicated can probably already be estimated into sprints due to how much is already known
  • Complex and Chaos are going to require probing with research and discovery before accurate sizing

Most of your daily, prosaic work probably falls under Obvious and Complicated. The most challenging, interesting and valuable part of your work falls under Complex. And on a bad day/week/month, there’s Chaos!

About James (from James O’Brien Freelance UX, Product and Culture consultant operating out of London.


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