Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Design Thinking and Disciplined Thinking

We all think.

Most of us realize that there are different ways of thinking. Most of us also believe and understand that different ways of thinking lead to different outcomes. So, the choice of how to think about something has serious consequences.

Howard Gardner explores forms of thinking in his book "The Disciplined Mind". Gardner is famous for his notion of multiple forms of intelligence. The idea is that people are intelligent in different ways. Ways that more or less are suitable for specific problems and situations. He argues that people need to nurture all forms of intelligence to be able to function well in the world, and his theories are of course highly influential and debated when it comes to education.

In this book, Gardner explores the notion of "disciplined thinking". He writes "over the years, cultures have evolved systematic ways of thinking about these issues" ("issues" referring to questions about the "true, the beautiful, and the good"). He continues "At any given moment, the disciplines represent the most well-honed efforts of human beings to approach questions and concerns of importance in a systematic and reliable way" (p 144). He shows that over time different disciplined ways of thinking may find themselves in conflict, or in competition, or going through a radical change. For instance, the scientific way of thinking has grown over centuries and has evolved into an extraordinarily powerful and efficient way of thinking if the purpose is to establish solid knowledge. However, scientific thinking is aimed at revealing what exists and how it works (the "true") and is less efficient when it comes to finding out what is "beautiful" or "good". So, each disciplined way of thinking has its strengths and weaknesses.

We have all experienced the extraordinary emergence of design thinking as a "new" form of thinking. People in academia and industry have accepted design thinking as a powerful way of approaching the world and to achieve change. Design thinking as a broad approach (and not as a simplistic process) seems to be able to provide humans with a way of approaching the world that other ways of thinking can't. However, if we want design thinking to develop we have to let go of the idea that design thinking is a well defined step-wise process, or a set of tools and techniques, and something that can be learned in an afternoon workshop.

Instead, we have to understand design thinking as a broad disciplined way of thinking, similar to what Gardner describes in his book as a "disciplined approach". Design thinking is not about using post-it notes or being user-oriented, or working in creative teams. It is a broad form of thinking that is disciplined in ways that other approaches are not. If we do not accept this, design thinking will only become a temporary fad and will after a few years disappear and be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The misconception about "simple" designs

One of the misconceptions about design is that some designs are simpler and easier than others. The misconception is based on the idea that some designs in themselves are obvious in the sense that they may have few parts, simple and few functions, simple and obvious form,  etc. which would mean that the overall possible design space is highly reduced and the number of difficult judgments and decisions needed are also reduced.

This misconception is serious since it can lead to the idea that simple designs do not need so much designerly attention, effort, resources, and time. Contrary to this misconception, every particular design is infinitely complex. At the level of the ultimate particular, there is an infinite number of variables that need to be decided.

(Opposite to that, if we move towards the universal, the complexity is reduced as the level of abstraction increases, see diagram below)

I think it is liberating for a designer to acknowledge that every design, no matter how "simple", is equally complex and requires an equal amount of attention and effort. Of course, we may have designs that are almost copies or variations of existing designs, then the complexity in design decisions can be radically reduced, but at the same time, that makes the process less of a design process.

So, designers should be careful with stating what is simple, difficult, easy, complex, etc. Stating that a design is simple and then be blamed for a bad design outcome is not a good situation to be in. The default should be that all designs (unless copies or simple variations) are always infinitely complex and hence require full designerly attention and effort.

From the book "The Design Way" by Nelson & Stolterman

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Design Judgment

In relation to my post about how designers learn I want to add a bit more about judgment and in particular design judgment. I don't think it is possible to overstate the importance of design judgment. Every design situation presents a richness and complexity that is not possible to fully grasp and handle in any comprehensive way. Designers are always dealing with overwhelming amounts of information while not knowing enough. The way to cope with this complexity is to use design judgment.

In our book "The Design Way" (ref below), we devoted a whole chapter to the notion of judgment. This is a section from the beginning of that chapter.

"Judgment is not a form of decision making as commonly understood. It is not dependent on rules of logic found within rational systems of inquiry. Judgment is not founded on strict rules of reasoning. It is more likely to be dependent on the accumulation of the experience of consequences from choices made in complex situations. However, judgment is not irrational, because it follows its own form of intuitive logic. Learning to make judgments is not a matter of learning to follow the steps of a technique, or to follow directions dictated by a method or algorithm, or to impose the a priori constraints of a theory. Wittgenstein stated: “What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgments. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating-rules” (Wittgenstein 1963).

Judgment is, by definition, an elusive animal. It is the expression of the work of the subconscious mind, and as distinct from rational decision making as it is from intuition. Judgment has practical, pragmatic value and academic legitimacy, without having to be codified and generalized, as science demands on behalf of its cousin, reason. We believe the capacity to judge can be learned and then applied in design circumstances, without destroying its essence and value. This is unlike the case of intuition, where too much intellectual attention is often feared by artists who feel that reason, at its best, is the opposite of intuition, and at its worst, a mortal enemy. The ability to make good judgments is as essential in design as it is in business, law, medicine, politics, art, or any other profession. For a skill that is necessary to so many endeavors, it is surprising that judgment is so little understood and so seldom a part of one’s formal education." (p 139-140)

One aspect of judgment is that it can be understood as dealing with a particular form of knowledge. We also write about this in the following way.

"Judgment can best be understood when it’s considered within the context of knowledge, knowing, and the knower. To put it simply, judgment is knowing based on knowledge that is inseparable from the knower. By this we mean that judgment is based on a type of knowledge that is generated in the particularity or uniqueness of a situation; knowledge that is inseparable from the knower and is only revealed through the actions— cognitive or physical actions—of the knower. This is in contrast to decisions that are made, based on the type of knowledge that is of value primarily because it is separable from the knower.

Judgment knowledge cannot be stored in libraries or in databases. Colleagues in controlled experiments can’t replicate it. It can neither be memorized nor accumulated in any quantity so as to build a field of routine expertise. Judgment knowledge has instrumental value only for a particular situation and loses its direct and immediate relevance in the next setting except as experience.

Therefore, it becomes clear that separable knowledge deals in that which is universal, or generalizable—while the inseparable knowing of judgment deals with particulars and ultimate particulars. This implies that designers can learn to make better judgments, but cannot learn—a priori—the specific kind of knowledge necessary for particular judgments at the moment they occur—namely, adaptive and design expertise." (p 140-141)

Much more can be said about judgement. Designers are every day experiencing design judgment, sometimes as a powerful 'tool' that helps them do their job but sometimes as a way of working that is not understood and recognized by others as valid and respected. Design judgment needs more attention.


Nelson, H. & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way-- Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World. 2nd Edition, The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA.

Friday, January 10, 2020

How designers learn

Donald Schon writes in his last book ("Frame Reflection" see ref below) about the process with which designers learn from experience and about how knowledge aimed at supporting designers are produced.

He makes the case that one commonly accepted way of developing knowledge is to develop what he calls "covering laws", that is, externally valid propositions, "propositions that are probably true of all the instances to which they are applicable in principle." However, he states that one problem with this kind of knowledge when it comes to design is that it tends to "fail in practice because other things are never entirely equal in all relevant aspects". Design situations are always unique. He also states that "covering laws" that do seem to prove relatively useful commonly turn out to be trivial and not improving practical wisdom.

On the other hand "situation-specific, case-based studies of practice,...., tend to be dismissed by critics of normal social science persuasion because they do not produce externally valid generalizations." So, what is left? what kind of knowledge production actually works for the support of designers?

Schon's answer is that designers "do learn from their own past experience and from their vicarious experience of other people's practice". And that they do, in fact, generalize from these experiences. But their experiences are not "covering laws". Instead, their mode of generalization is what Schon calls "reflective transfer". With this concept, he means the "process by which patterns detected in one situation are carried over as projective models to other situations where they are used to generate new causal inferences and are subjected to new, situation-specific tests of internal validity".

This is a wonderful sentence. It is a sentence that explains why designers have to do design to learn and that the deepest form of learning requires practical experience. But it also means that in order to be able to carry over patterns as projective models, you need to be able to abstract thinking, to in some sense 'theorize" your experiences, which is why you also need tools that help you do this. Doing and thinking together.


Donald A. Schon & Martin Rein, 1994, Frame Reflection - towards the resolution of intractable policy controversies. Basic Books

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Escaping people, place and time

One of my favorite philosophers, Albert Borgmann, has developed a theory commonly called the Device Paradigm (reference below). The theory states that people are inclined to develop new technology that changes the way we do things from being focal practices to being commodities. A focal practice is an activity where you are aware of what is going on, have some understanding of how things work, and you are in control of the activity, and you are intentionally engaged in the experience. When technology is introduced, some practices become invisible and automatic. Technology creates a disconnect between means and ends. As a "user" you are commonly only aware of the end (the outcome). For instance, systems that keep our homes and workplaces warm or cool are commodified. We only experience the end result, the outcome, that is, the changing temperature (which we sometimes can control) but we do not have any idea about how and where the heat is produced or spread. The traditional focal practice of having a fireplace where you have to engage in preparing the wood, lightning the fire, keep it burning, etc. to create warmth is long gone.

So, the device paradigm leads to the realization that technology commodifies our environments and our activities. The result is technologies that "liberate" us from people, place, and time. Almost every app today is an example of this. If you ask the question, what is the benefit of a particular app, the answer is probably that it makes it possible to achieve something (an outcome) without having to deal with people or to be in a specific place at a particular time. In most cases, this sounds wonderful. We can do amazing things with the technology that could only be accomplished with a lot of work, transportation, and time management in the "old" days.

What Borgmann argues is that the Device Paradigm leads to loss of grounding. To be engaged in focal practices means to be in a particular place, engage in the process of achieving something in a focused way. To be in a particular place, at a particular time, with particular people, leads to an experience that grounds us. It connects us with people and places, and with time. If we do not have that, we are floating through or above the world. Not connected to anything. With focal practices comes a need for learning. There are frictions and failures. There is the satisfaction of achievements when being able to do it.

Borgmann is not arguing that technology necessarily leads to the device paradigm consequences. Instead, he argues that it is a matter of design. So what technological designs do we have today that do not show signs of the device paradigm but truly lead to focal practices?

Albert Borgmann, 1984, "Technology and the character of contemporary life - a philosophical inquiry". The University of Chicago Press.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Device-Agnostic Experiences

Recently I have seen some writers talk about what is new in interaction design. There are many suggestions, such as storytelling. voice-first design, frameless experiences, augmented reality, emotional design, transparency design, systems design. Most of these are quite obvious and we will probably see more of them these coming years.

I just want to comment on one trend that I have seen mentioned here and there. The basic idea is that any design should seamlessly function on any device or system. This sounds all good to a user who can move freely between technologies and devices and still use the same functionality, only with different interaction modalities. We have seen this idea being implemented for many years already, for instance, in how websites have been designed to also work on smartphones.

Even though the idea is easy to support it leads to some serious design challenges that are not always addressed. I will mention two issues.

First, the idea is based on the assumption that any functionality is possible to perform given any technology, for instance, that voice interaction is just another form of interaction but can perform what direct manipulation can do. This is maybe possible, but it can lead to increasingly complex interactions that make no sense to a user. Each device (technology) supports and lends itself to certain actions and interactions and not to others.

Secondly, to be device-agnostic easily leads to complexity on the level of systems. What devices should be included in the "agnostic" design? And which ones do not have to be included? We live with a large number of devices, from traditional computers to cars, appliances, home equipment, tools, games, TV, etc. What functionality needs to be available on what devices? It is not only a question of what agnostic design that can be done, but also which ones are appropriate. When does it lead to crowded and cluttered interactive devices?

This is of course an old challenge that designers have struggled with for a long time. There has always been a conflict between those who argue for specialized devices with particular focus and functionality and those who argue for general devices that combine a broad spectrum of functionality. We can see that fight in the HiFi industry, in kitchen appliances, woodworking tools, etc. 

So, the question is not if device-agnostic design is good or bad, but when is it appropriate and when is it not. Maybe some functionality should be left to one, and only one, device, while others can be spread across a spectrum of devices.

Monday, November 04, 2019

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Why Design Thinking is Not Enough

If you go to Youtube and look for "design thinking" you will find a large number of videos with TED talks and other talks all expl...