Monday, December 17, 2018

Designing and its measure-of-success

One of the aspects of designing that is not enough reflected upon is the notion of 'measure-of-success'. When we evaluate a design as good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or adequate, we do that by employing some form of measuring and evaluating (I use 'measuring' as a very broad and inclusive activity). There are many forms of measure-of-success. They can a broad scope, they can be complex or simple, intuitive or well-defined, they can be recognized by many or by one.

The most personal and maybe least defined measure-of-success is if you like it, without any further explications of what "like it" is based on when it comes to qualities, variables, impact, etc. The opposite to that is probably the measure-of-success as established in most sciences, that is, a well-defined approach that has to be satisfied in all its details where the process has to show that it lives up to the explicit requirements of the scientific method.  Scientific results are expected to be the outcome of transparent processes that we can trace and inspect.

Interestingly enough, if a scientific process does live up to the requirements, we are not able to deny the outcome as a scientific result, no matter what we think about it. The measure-of-success "like it" does not apply.

Other traditions have other relationships with measuring. For instance, in art, there is little, if any, expectations that the artistic process has to be done in any specific way. No one cares if it is possible to trace and inspect the process. This does not mean that the measure-of-success is less complicated in art. Those who approach art only as a matter of "like it" are commonly seen as not knowing art and not having the needed sensibility of recognizing or 'measuring' art.

Another aspect in art is that one of the most determining factors in measuring success is the artist, the person. In science, of course, the person cannot be part of the measuring of success.

Without going too far on these similarities and differences, what does this mean for design? Well, in many situations designing is measured by the application of the measure-of-success from other traditions, typically science or art. Of course, we also see designing measured by the measure-of-success from the tradition of business. As someone who teaches designing, I am often struck by how difficult the measure-of-success in designing is to students. They become confused since they often try to combine several measures and try to make sense out of it. This is extraordinarily difficult since the existing measure-of-success in other traditions are not easy to combine, actually in many cases they are irreconcilable. It is impossible to combine them.

It is important to realize that it is not the case that a tradition or approach, such as designing, has a given measure-of-success that has to be used. It is definitely possible to use for instance a scientific approach to create something that is measured as a piece of art, or an artistic approach while expecting the result to be measured as a knowledge contribution. This is an exciting realization. I believe that often when we see highly creative outcomes it is when someone uses one tradition with the purpose to create something to be evaluated with the measure-of -uccess from another tradition. Of course, anyone who tries this has to be prepared of the harsh critique that will follow, unless the relationship between the process and the measure-of-success is made perfectly clear.

Designing means creating something yet-not-existing. It is a powerful approach and tradition. If a designer want to be successful, they have to be clear about their own measure-of-success and also be able to communicate that to those who will be evaluating the design. So, for each design project the questions are: what is the purpose and intention, what is the design desiderata, and how does that translate into a measure-of-success, and how can that measure-of-success be explained and communicated.


Anonymous said...

I believe there are (at least) two levels of measure-of-success.

There's the designer's own measure-of-success. Essential to the designer but really only relevant during the design process. And then there's the design's measure-of-success. Which isn't up to the designer, but up to the design's audience.

Normally these two are aligned, but they are not the same. Unless designing for ourselves, we have to be clear about our audience's measure(s) of success. And how those translate into design desiderata, that then support an underlying purpose and intention for the designer.

Erik Stolterman Bergqvist said...

Thanks Anonymous,
You are correct that there are many kinds of measures-of-success. And that when they are not aligned or in resonance there will be problems. So to be aware of this is crucial. Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the follow-up, though you I feel you didn't pick up on the more contentious bit. I'll try to be more direct.

If my previous comment is correct then the measure-of-success while designing (the one used to drive design judgments) isn't a measure-of-success of the resulting design (the one used by the audience).

Followed to the extreme, but logical, conclusion: designers are ill-suited to be judges of design. Or at least shouldn't use their design judgments as a measure-of-success of the design, only as a measure for judging and understanding the underlying process. "Are we doing it right?" not "Did we do the right thing?"

What the designer wants to achieve and how well a designer can articulate that is crucial for designing (e.g. reflection and critique) as well as for studying designing... but is not a determining factor for the success of a design.

(Unless of course the designer is well-aligned. Yet that measure-of-success seems to rank low on the totem-pole of self-expression)

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