Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Something something systems thinking, part 1 [post 4/100]

Today’s a little crazy, not all that much time to craft a post. So I’ll open a conversation that will continue over the coming days…

Lately I’ve noticed (I’m sometimes a little behind in noticing things, partly because I really don’t want them to be true) some rather alarming things about how design is carried out in companies large and small. Not everywhere, mind you. But in enough places for me to not be able to deny it anymore. Things have changed of course, to suit the times and the technologies – but it also seems like the approach to the craft itself has changed, and in ways that I think are going to get pretty problematic, pretty quickly.

There is always a tension between ‘let’s just get something out the door as quickly as possible’ and ‘let’s try to make the right thing’ – this battle is currently being waged with particular ferocity, especially in the startup community. Personally, I’m all about putting prototypes in people’s hands as early as possible – I’m even advocating prototyping business models – but I’m also absolutely about doing the right thing. I thought that was the whole point. And doing the right thing means you have to engage with the complexity of the problem you’re trying to solve, not just the superficial levels of it. You also have to have a really solid idea of why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place, for whom you’re doing it, and what you’re trying to accomplish – again, beyond the superficial.

How often have you struggled to accomplish a task in a bit of software and wasted time trying to figure out how the guys that made it thought you should do the thing you’re trying to do? My current favourite example is iTunes, which I used a few weeks ago for the first time in years, and which completely flummoxed me. I now actively resent it. I had quite a strong sense the whole time I was struggling with the thing that there was a way to do what I was trying to do – but there was only one way to do it. Which brings me to my point.

In the mad rush to get things out the door, the design process often ends up looking something like this:

  1. Prototype release date set
  2. Arbitrary* “Minimum Viable Product” feature set defined
  3. “Personas” cobbled together from a combination of generic demographics and general ‘that sounds right’-ness
  4. A finite set of user journeys defined and designed
  5. Product released

When this happens over and over again, it’s easy to find you’ve designed the user into a corner, or many corners – by focussing solely on a fixed set of paths, or ways of doing things, you’re unintentionally limiting what your users can do. Worse yet, you might be forcing them to do things your way, which might not make sense to them, instead of their own way.

This is going to get much much worse when we’re designing experiences that aren’t purely screen-based: would you really want (for example) your kitchen, or your lighting, or your car to behave in ways that were fixed and slightly mysterious to you, ways that someone else thinks those things should behave? Would you feel comfortable living in an environment where you never quite understood what was going on?

It’s not just algorithms that can lead to uncomfortable interactions – lazy or myopic design will do the same. And especially as we move into a more algo-driven world, we designers have a big challenge ahead of us – how to provide the access points people need to make sense of what’s happening underneath, to make them comfortable and able to do what they need or want to do.

To be continued (but do feel free to contribute in the comments!)…


*often not based on any sort of viable strategic framework or research