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

Monday, October 28, 2019

New book by Stephane Vial "Being and the screen - how the digital changes perception"

The latest addition to our MIT Press book series "Design Thinking/Design Theory" is by Stephane Vial with the title "Being and the screen - how the digital changes perception".

It is great to see this text finally translated to English and we are happy that we can publish it in our book series. Read and enjoy!!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Predicting the future of interaction

Having lived through highly dynamic decades of technology and changing forms of interaction, it may feel as if it is impossible to predict what will come. And in many ways it is. We have over and over been surprised by new forms of interaction and interactivity. When we experience the new, we usually think "of course, why did we not see that coming".

One of the reasons why prediction in this field are rare and maybe not always so interesting is that it is a field dominated by people who are thinking as designers, that is, they focus on what can be done for certain people, in a specific situation and time, and on people's  particular needs and wants, etc. Designers are focused and driven by the particular (or as we have labeled it the "ultimate particular" in our book "The Design Way").

When the particular is your focus, the general or the universal becomes secondary. However, shifts in technology and technology use take place in the general and universal. Recognizing such broad and often deep changes requires a different way of looking. It requires a serious ambition to reveal and understand underlying structures and processes. This is not done by only being involved in design, it requires analytical investigations and conceptual and theoretical precision.

I have personally experienced this in my own work. For many years I have with my colleague Lars-Erik Janlert been working on developing fundamental definitions and theoretical concepts relating to the 'nature of interaction' or the elements of interaction. We have tried to create a general understanding of interaction and interactivity that is broad and deep in the sense that it should be helpful in describing any form of interaction. I think we have been quite successful and the result can be seen in our book "Things that keep us busy - the elements of interaction" (MIT Press).

We never set out to predict the future of interaction at all. Only to develop a way of describing and explaining interaction. At the end of our work, we realized that when you have such a fundamental understanding you also have a 'tool' that makes it possible to project and to some extent predict the future. This is why our book ends with some future-looking projections or speculations of what we will see in the coming years. These are not predictions in the sense that they are wishes or personal speculations, they are more logical projections from where we are.

This has led me to even more appreciate what some might call 'basic research', that is, research that only has as its goal to capture, describe and explain existing phenomena. And, as a consequence, it has also led me to understand that the field of HCI could definitely need more basic research.

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