Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Dogmatic Advise and Thoughtful Design

In the july+august issue of the ACM Magazine Interactions, Don Norman argues that doing user observations first is wrong. Usually Norman is man of wisdom, but this time he argues against a dogmatic view (that user observation should come before design), while unfortunately pushing another dogmatic view. As soon as someone argues that "this is the way to do it" we have to be careful. In Norman's case, it is of course quite easy to find example situations where it is a good idea to do user observations first, as well as it is easy to find situations where it is better to start with design. No rule, no process advise is always "true", it all has to do with intention, purpose, context, and judgment. This is the background to my (our) book "Thoughtful Interaction Design" in which we try to describe a way to approach design that in a serious way takes "intention, purpose, context, and judgment" not as problems in design but as preconditions. Based on this we develop a thoughtful approach where dogmatic ideas have no place. This leads to an understanding of design and the designer that, while keeping design complex and rich, establishes a way of developing personal design competence, not in the form of external guidelines but as internalized qualities, not as predefined action sequences but as a sensibility of quality and a respect for the particular.


Andreas Lund said...

Hi Erik,

I bought the Getting Real ebook yesterday and I guess some people would (and have) categorized it as a collection of dogmatic advice. I like it a lot. Check it out.

Isn't dogmatic advice something good and a necessary part of the landscape and, the more I think of it, something that makes your approach tick? Isn't it the strength of the thoughtful designer to be able to pick and choose among "dogmas"? What someone is pushing as the ultimate way, is just an addition to the thoughtful designer's map of possibilities.


Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Andreas

I have not looked at Getting Real, now I guess I have to :-) You have a point on dogmatic advice as a "feeding" other more flexible approaches. But, the thing is that what Norman argues for is not that kind of thoughtfulness or flexibility, i.e., his advice does not lend itself as valuable to a thoughtful designer. However, a "really" thoughtful designer can of course handle that, and use Normans advice as one among many.

I am using a new book called "Designing Interfaces" in my undergraduate class. It is built around the notion of patterns. I like that approach when it comes to supporting straightforward design. Patterns as the book presents them are inevitably contradictory and actually "forces" a thoughtful and contextual approach since the designer has to make difficult choices, but can still be inspired and challenged by the patterns. Normans advice is in relation to that not usable, not informative, non inspirational. But, apaprt from that, I do like his books :-)