Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Book note: "101 Design Methods" and the problematic success of design

I just received my copy of the book "101 Design Methods -- A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation inYour Organization" by Vijay Kumar. This is one of quite many similar books that have been published the last few years, that is, a book that contains a large number of design methods nicely but briefly described.

I have always like this type of book even though I never really use them myself. The same is true for "101 Design Methods". The book contains many of the popular design methods that are used today and Kumar has organized these methods by providing "A Model of the Design Innovation Process".

This model is, in my words, a schema that helps designers think about the design process, what activities are involved,  and how the different activities relate to each other. It is a nice schema that invites for further exploration.

Kumar does not discuss design in terms of phases or steps, instead he talks about "Seven Modes of the Design Innovation Process". For each of the methods, Kumar then presents benefits, input, output, and when to use. He also presents "what it does" and "how it works". Everything is well presented and the methods are pedagogically introduced, each on two pages.

As for many of the similar books that introduce methods and techniques in a condensed form, this book also have the same issues. I believe that for someone who is already trained in design and has internalized designerly thinking and is experienced in the design process, a book like this works well. The book then becomes a handbook, a repository, a memory support, an inspirational source for when a designer has to select how to approach a task. For a designer, the descriptions are enough to inspire how to do something based on previous experience, and then they can adapt and adopt the method to the specific situation and need. The two page description reminds the designer of potential methods and also about the core aspects of the method.

However, for someone who is not trained in design, who does not think in a designerly way, the book does not give the same support. Instead, it may even be misleading in the sense that it portraits design as a process of activities that all seem fairly straightforward and "simple". It may appear that given the situation at hand you just decide what you need, or what "mode" you are in, and then uses one of the methods for that purpose.  However, this is not the way design works. The complexity of even the "simplest" design situation and process never means that there are obvious choices of methods or techniques.

What we face today with the enormous success of design as a solution to most problems, such as 'innovation' in Kumar's book, is that design is being transformed from a process requiring competence and skills that takes time and effort to achieve into a "quick fix" approach where it is all about picking the right tools. It is as if we would take a traditional carpenters workshop, pick 25 out of the several hundreds of tools in there, arrange them conceptually in relation to what a carpenter does, and expect anyone to be able to do carpentry and achieve high quality furniture. We all know that is not possible. To be a skilled carpenter means to know what tool to use, when and how to use them, and to recognize improvement and quality of outcome. None of these skills are intrinsically part of any method or tool. The skill to be able to think and act like a carpenter is what carpentry is all about.

So, even though I am very happy with the way design has reached the status of today, that all companies and organizations want to be design thinking organizations, I am less happy with the way that this success is manifested in books. The book described above is definitely needed and is a great contribution to many designers. But what we need is more books that can help people to understand design, what it means to be a designer, that can support them in their struggle to develop as a designer. We need books about design that accepts that it is not a "quick fix", not a question of using the right tools, not a question of selecting the right method, but that design is a way of thinking and approaching the world with the purpose of change. And we need books that can do this in an intelligible way that intrigues non-designers and make them understand that the effort needed is worth it if they want to become a designer.


Marty Siegel said...

Of course I agree with your post. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a book that presented design cases that describe in great detail how a tool is used in context, why it was chosen, when the designers initiated use of the tool and when they found it less useful. All of this would be juxtaposed against the product's use, the iterative process, and the varied contexts.

Elizabeth Boling and Colin Gray edit an online journal of cases for instruction design. Maybe it's time to begin something like this for UX.

I remember the early days of online learning. It was the 1970's. The community was small and we struggled with understanding fundamental issues. Now in 2013, "everyone" is doing online education; everyone is an expert. Of course they're not, but this is what happens when you read a couple books on the topic, attend a webinar, and create a course. Suddenly you can charge large consulting fees for your "knowledge." Maybe you'll even write a book on the 100 methods of online education!

Marty Siegel

Erik Stolterman said...

Thanks Marty for insightful and wise comments. You are completely right.

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