Description or prescription? –

I am often asked by people entering the design field what my design process is. Am I following the double diamond of Design Thinking? On the cicurality of the user-centered design process? Or a Design Sprint approach? Or maybe something of my own? I am guessing these questions are popping up in a search of the one, ideal way to tackle design problems. But is such an ideal possible?

Silver bullet…

It seems that the Design Thinking methodology provided many people with a perception that if you follow the prescribed process you will arrive at innovation. I am not quite sure whether it was the intention of Tim Brown and David Kelley (I guess not really) but somehow the process proposed by them was read as a recipe for success. The silver bullet of innovative approach. Yet some studies show that even if you follow the DT process to the letter, innovation is not guaranteed. So, many companies get dissapointed and decide to drop the design approach all together.

The recipe driven world

Today’s world seems to be quite recipe driven. This happens not only with respect to Design Thinking. Lean, kanban, agile seem to also be seen as potential recipes for success if applied with rigor. And with a strong belief that regardless of the type of the problem that’s being tackled they should deliver the expected results.

Some time ago I wrote about my troubles with personas. I’ve got a similar problem with mapping the customer journey. Not because these are bad techniques. But because they are being seen as the ultimate tool for any type of a problem for any kind of business. Yet sometimes using such tools can do more harm than good.

Many years ago at the CHI conference, Bill Buxton and Saul Greenberg published a controversial article Usability evaluation considered harmful (some of the time)”. The gossip goes around that they were asked to add the words in the brackets by the review committee to soften the point they were trying to make. What they argued was the following:

“Clearly, usability evaluation is valuable for many situations, as it often helps validate both research ideas and products at varying stages in its lifecycle. […] We believe that the community should continue to evaluate usability for many — but not all — interface development situations. What we will argue is that there are some situations where usability evaluation can be considered harmful: we have to recognize these situations, and we should consider alternative methods instead of blindly following the usability evaluation doctrine. Usability evaluation, if wrongfully applied, can quash potentially valuable ideas early in the design process, incorrectly promote poor ideas, misdirect developers into solving minor vs. major problems, or ignore (or incorrectly suggest) how a design would be adopted and used in everyday practice.”

In other words: usability evaluation (as well as any other type of a design tool or methodology) is not a prescription for success to be used in every situation and for every stage of the process. It needs to be used with a good understanding of its advantages and disadvantages. Only then there is a chance for using it successfully.

A cook or a chef?

A metaphor of a cook versus a chef comes to mind when thinking about this issue. A cook is a person who pulls out the cookbook, finds a recipe, follows it and hopes for a good meal. Some of the times it works. Some of the times it doesn’t.

A chef, though, approaches cooking with a different mindset. She understands the ingredients and how they work together. She comes with a vision and with a deep respect to the produce she has in her hands. She also comes with a profound empathy for the people she is going to treat with her creation.

Where does the difference lay? To me it lays in seeing the design methodologies as suggestions of what can be done to achieve a result. All these tools are like fruits, and veggies, and spices that have a potential for an amazing outcome. But you need to look at them as ingredients of the process not the recipes. You need to choose them having your audience in mind.

Design ingredients

I love cooking. I admit that sometimes I do follow recipes. And sometimes I create food of my own. I have this rule when we have guests over: all dishes but one are the dishes I have previously made. One dish though is always an experiment. If it doesn’t work, I can throw it out without my guests even knowing. All the other dishes are going to make a good meal. This one dish is my experimental field. A way to try out new ideas. To see what works and what doesn’t.

I have a similar approach in my design process (or rather approach as I don’t think I have one repeatable process). I look at the problem at hand and envision how I could best tackle it. Then I plan my first step. Most of the tools and methods I use are something I’ve tried before. But I made it a rule to always add one tool I haven’t tried yet. If it doesn’t work I can easily replace it with another. But if it works, great things tend to happen. Things that I haven’t expected. That push me to think broader as a designer (as if creator) and as a methodologist (as if process conductor).

Flexible focus

One other tactic that works pretty well for me in the description-driven approach is flexible focus. Like I wrote just a moment ago, I tend to envision the entire process at the beginning. But I don’t get too attached to this plan. Planning helps me to better understand what the end-goal is. And that’s it. Once I have my priorities set, I take the first step (be it user research or prototyping or a creative workshop) and see whether it gets me closer to the goal. If it does I follow the next planned step. If it doesn’t I change the plan.

Such an approach seems to be called these days flexible focus: finding out what’s important while staying open-minded as how to get there. I strongly believe that this is what we as designers need more: seeing the amazing variety of tools and methods we have at our disposal as means to a desired end rather than prescriptions that have to be followed.

I know that many designers might shroud their shoulders asking: what’s new here? But as more and more people who are not trained in the design profession enter the design space thanks to the popularity of the Design Thinking approach, it might be worthwhile to mention that it is not a prescription for success. It is merely a set of tools that can be experimented with. That should be experimented with.

Author: Aga Szóstek

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