Problem solving for computer programmers – Well and Ill-defined problems
March 22, 2021

In practice, a problem occurs when a problem solver has a goal but initially does not know how to reach the goal. So, the problem begins in a given state (current state) and the problem solver wants the problem in another state (goal state). Problem solving is required to transform the current state to the goal state. Therefore problem solving is application of ideas, skills, or actual information to achieve the solution to a problem or reach a desired outcome.

In light of the above, a well-defined problem provides clear description of the initial state, allowed operations and the goal. Well-defined problems  have clear goals or solution and its problem solving strategies are easily developed. On the other hand, ill-defined problems do provide specific guidance in terms of what is expected.

As an example, most of you might be familiar with the wolf, goat and cabbage farmer river-crossing problem. It is usually told that once upon a time, a farmer went to a market and purchased a wolf, goat and cabbage. On his way home, the farmer came to the bank of a river and rented a boat. But crossing the river by boat, the farmer could carry only himself and a single one of his purchases: the wolf, the goat, or the cabbage. If left unattended together, the wolf would eat the goat, or the goat would eat the cabbage. The farmer’s challenge was to carry himself and his purchases to the far bank of the river, leaving each purchase intact. How can this be achieved?

The above, is a well-stated problem with a clear initial state, allowed operations and final state. In dealing, with programming, which is largely a problem-solving job, because the role of the programmer is to give solutions to the computer for it to execute. Remember that computers just follow the programmed solutions.

“Write a computer program for music” is an example of an ill-defined problem. It neither states the initial state nor the final goal. Generally, ill-defined problems come out as ambiguous, provoke several interpretations and it is not obvious when a solution has been reached.  In addition, ill-defined problems are are unclear, abstract, or confusing and do not have clear problem solving strategies. One strategy to solved ill-defined problems is to add constraints for which the solution will be valid. Such constraints are called operational constraints. In the music playing example, one may add that the program should play, pause, and stop play songs format mp3.

In conclusion, as a way of understanding a problem, problem solvers and particularly programmers should identify the three aspects of the problem for any meaningful and acceptable solution to be accepted.

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