Friday, February 10, 2017

Why Design Thinking is Not Enough

If you go to Youtube and look for "design thinking" you will find a large number of videos with TED talks and other talks all explaining what design thinking is, how important it is, how to do it, etc. Some are good. They present an understanding of designing that is ok, but in many cases they are quite simplistic, and surprisingly quite often based on the speakers personal experience of realizing the "power" of design as a new creative process to solve problems. The speaker have "seen the light", and the light is design thinking. Again, this is all well, we do need as many as possible to be introduced to a designerly way of thinking. The world needs design thinking.

But, it is not enough. Any approach used by humans to engage with the world in an intentional way, for producing knowledge (as the scientific process) or for producing art (as the artistic process) or for producing change (as the design process) has to be supported. The scientific process has for the last couple of centuries been develop within a larger culture that recognizes, enables, supports and advances it--the academic culture as manifested by universities. This academic culture has developed together, in parallel, with the scientific process. The two have over time influenced each other, and they have more or less had a common goal. The broader academic culture knows what a scientific process is and what it requires to be successful and it sees as its task to make that happen.

If we now look at design thinking instead of the scientific process, a very different picture emerges. Design thinking is in most cases not protected and supported by a broader culture such as the academic culture protects and support the scientific process. When I talk to professional designers in all kinds of industries this is one of the most frequent 'complaints' I hear. these professional designers are happy to be involved in design, but they do not feel understood and definitely not 'safe' or protected. Instead, I often hear them describe their reality having to 'defend', 'explain', and 'fight' for design as a suitable approach. They feel threatened and are always looking for ways to argue for what they do, even to the extent that they start to change the process to look more like processes that might already be recognized and appreciated within the culture where they work.

This is why design thinking (in all its varieties) is not enough. Any design approach needs to be situated within a designerly culture that understands what design is, what is requires, and when it is appropriate (and not). Design thinking needs a surrounding culture that protects its strengths, uniqueness and core so it can perform and deliver what it promises. Companies that bring in design thinking as a quick fix, as a 'tool', as a 'method' will fail unless they engage in creating a broader designerly culture.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Why design judgment matters more than ever..

I was today made aware about an interesting text about complexity (thanks Abiel Tomás Parra Hernández for the pointer). The article has the title "Why this will be the Century of Complexity..." written by Kieran D. Kelly. The article is mostly aimed at the world of physics and how that discipline has and is changing in relation to the growing understanding of complex phenomena. To what extent the article correctly describes physics and its development is not something I can determine, but, the article makes some interesting observations that can be relevant to the philosophy and theory of designing.

In the article Kelly argues that complexity and chaos is something natural and something that we have to live with and that can't be reduced to traditional thinking based on some fundamental ideas of stability. Anyway, if this is interesting from a scientific perspective I don't know and for the purpose of my post, I don't care. Instead, what is interesting to me are some of the definitions that Kelly examines. For instance, he defines chaos as “adaptive instability” and as “unresolved internal adaptation to feedback, surfacing as turbulent diversity on the system level”. And he writes that "Natural Chaos is Incompressible Adaptive Diversity".

When I read these definitions they fit quite well into some advanced ideas about designing as a process of intentional change struggling with unpredictability. To try to intentionally design while dealing with "constantly changing feedback" in a context of emerging complex systems is an overwhelming task. And this is only on the side of designing that tries to understand the context and conditions within which the design is supposed to make a difference. We have a similar complexity on the side of intentionality, or desiderata, that is, on the side of the purpose and goal of a design. What all involved want or desire from a design is equally influenced by complexity, feedback and emergence.

So, is intentional design even possible? Of course it is, we see examples of wonderful intentional designs in the most complex contexts and conditions. But we also see a lot of examples of failed designs. Designing is not easy. It demands a designerly mind that is able to understand how to approach and deal with the complexity and richness of reality through the use of design wisdom and design judgment. It will never be possible to fully examine and understand reality for designerly purposes in a way that reduces the need for a designerly judgment. A designer judgment is needed to cut through the overwhelming but insufficient information about the reality that we can produce with all our approaches and methods. A designer judgment is need to find out what the desiderata is, that is, what is the desire and purpose with a design. Desiderata is not a consequence of reality, of any complex and emergent contexts, or deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms of reality. Desiderata can only be established by designers in conspiracy with all stakeholders based on their desires, wants and needs. Ok, enough for now...

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Working on a new course preliminary called "The World of Interfaces"

I am at the moment, together with my PhD student Jordan Beck, working on a new course preliminary called "The World of Interfaces".

I would like to teach a course that captures the breadth and diversity in the way interfaces are manifested today. It would include a lot of capturing, collecting and curating. It would lead to categorizations, clusterings, and types. I imagine it as a quite exciting course for undergraduate students primarily with the purpose to challenge their perceived ideas about what interfaces are, can be and should be. I also imagine a graduate course on the same topic but with more theoretical ambitions (related to my new book "Things that keep us busy -- elements of interaction".

If you have ideas about a course like this, maybe already teach one or took one, or know good readings, I would love to hear from you. My email is

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How (not) to improve design practice

One of my intellectual hero's is Donald Schön. I have sine the mid 1980s been impressed and inspired by his writings on design. His theoretical framework is broad in scope, deep in detail and ambitious and by most today overlooked. Of course, Schön is one of the most cited design thinkers but his ideas has been reduced and are usually referred to only be about "reflection". Schön's work is much more than that.

Anyway, to those to engage in trying to produce new methods and tools that can support design practice, there is a wonderful quote from Schön that is worth 'reflecting' upon.

(You have to exchange 'policy academics' with 'design academics' in this quote.)

"If policy academics want to build a better understanding of policy practice in a way useful to practitioners as well as appropriately rigorous, then they must not bypass the research in which practitioners are already engaged. If they disregard what practitioners already know or are already trying to discover, they are unlikely either to grasp what is really going on or to succeed in getting practitioners to listen to them." (Schön & Rein, "Frame Reflection", 1994, p.193.)

Way too often we can observe attempt from academia to improve design practice that is not grounded in any serious understanding of practice. What Schön is arguing for is what I have in other places called "rationality resonance", which is a concept that captures the ideal situation when the rationality underlying an 'improver's' suggested change resonates with the 'improved' practitioners own rationality. When this is not in place, the noble attempt to improve design practice ends up either being neglected or destroying the very nature of design practice.

So, go back, read Schön's books. They constitute an extraordinary source of design wisdom.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Revisiting some thoughts from 2008 "Design Thinking in 10 to 20 years"

In 2008 I wrote a blog post about the future of design thinking (see below). It was a short post and it was primarily predicting design thinking to have a serious and fundamental influence on the structure of higher education and research. I anticipated design to have become an integral part of all areas of academia, not just the traditional design disciplines. Well, I think it is obvious that my prediction were a bit too ambitious (even though we have barely made 10 of the "10 to 20 years" I was discussing).

We are still not where I thought we would be. Design as a distinct activity of inquiry and action is not yet recognized in academia. Design has not become the obvious third culture, next to science and art. However, we are definitely living in a time when design thinking has been recognized as an suitable approach when it comes to creative and innovative change, primarily by business and industry (I have in some other posts warned for the design thinking backlash).

This is all good and well, but I am still worried that my prediction will fail. The main cause for such a failure is, in my view, that design thinking has become more of a slogan, a management fad. It is often presented as a quick fix approach that offers some simple tools that anyone can use with wonderful results. If this is what design will be understood as, it will definitely fail.

If design is to become a true human tradition of inquiry and change, worthy a place next to science and art, it has to become more thorough in its conceptual foundation, more aware of its role, strength and weaknesses. There is a need for deep scholarship and insightful reflection on design practice. And it has to be translated into fundamental ideas and principles that provide conceptual and practical stability. It may be tempting to see this only as a requirement for more theoretical development in academia but that is a misunderstanding. If design is to become a true tradition of change, these requirements are equally need for its professional practice to develop and become sustainably useful.

I still predicting that the future of research and academia will be radically changed when design is accepted as the third tradition next to science and art. We just have to add a few years to my previous prediction....

Here is my post from 2008:

"Design Thinking in 10 to 20 years

In my class yesterday we discussed the future of design, interaction design and HCI. I asked the students about their view about the future for the discipline, profession and for research in the field of interaction design. Then they asked me about my predictions. Of course, I had predictions but here I will only mention one.

For quite some years I have predicted that the growing interest in design, design thinking, and design research and education will have a profound influence on the fundamental structure and organization of disciplines, schools, and universities. I think it is already possible to see this. When we bring in design thinking as a major component in a field, suddenly it is possible to see simlarities with disciplines that was not there before. We have already seen some new d-schools, for instance at Stanford. Even though these initiatives have not been successful yet, my prediction is that they will.

We might in some years see new academic constellations where we have design oriented "disciplines" from all parts of the traditional university structure coming together. We might as a first step see "old" units change their profile and become more designerly, like Ryerson Business School in Toronto who, as a school, has decided to transform the whole school into a design oriented school. Traditional art and design schools are also changing and opening up and inviting new disciplines, there are traditional technical disciplines that join forces with other design oriented disciplines in new unseen designerly "technical" schools.

Within 10 to 20 years we will see some universities changing their structure based on the notions of natural sciences, social sciences and humanities as the major components. As a part of that structure there will also be a design component (maybe design sciences even though I do not like that name). I am looking forward to this radical change of university organization."

Friday, January 20, 2017

Designerly Thinking and Doing in Chicago on March 31st.

I will hold a workshop on Designerly Thinking and Doing in Chicago on March 31st.
Click on the link if you want to know more.

Here is what the workshop is about.

Professionals and leaders in all areas are today challenged with constant demands of producing creative and innovative solutions. Lately the notion of “Design thinking” has emerged as a new and exciting approach able to deliver such solutions. But what does it really mean to think and act in a designerly way? Where do you start? And how do you develop design competence and leadership?
We've brought Erik back to share with us his approach to design judgement based on several decades of research with designers. The purpose of this workshop is to provide a deep understanding of what designerly thinking and doing as a way of navigating a complex world means and how to do it.
Among the topics covered:
- When is a designerly approach appropriate
- Why engage in a designerly approach
- What does designerly thinking mean as a practical ‘method’
- What is a designerly outcome
- What is designerly competence
- How can designerly expertise be developed
- What is designerly leadership
- How to develop a designerly culture
This will be great opportunity for those who have heard about ‘design thinking’ as an approach but have not yet had a chance to engage with it. But, it will also be useful to those who are already involved in design in their professional life but are looking for more. Expect a mix of lecture, discussion, and exercises related to the topics above and the participants’ own experiences
Attendance will be limited to 20 participants. This will allow for an efficient and personal experience for all participants. Registration is $300 per person. Fee includes a physical copy of the books “Thoughtful Interaction Design” (MIT Press) and “The Design Way” (MIT Press). A light breakfast and lunch will be provided. Many thanks to Fuzzy Math for sponsoring and providing a space for the event.
8:30a Doors open
9:00a Workshop begins
Noon - 1:00p Lunch
4:00p Workshop ends
4:01p Drinks

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

'Rich interactions' -- a blind spot in HCI research

I am often struck by the strive for simplicity that seems to guide almost all HCI research and also most of the popular press surrounding interaction design and UX. This strive towards simplicity seems to be so fundamental and unquestionable that it is not even understood as a purposely chosen goal. Instead it seems to be a given. Of course, it is not a problem to try to make things simple. Why shouldn't we? And as long as we are dealing with very simple software and apps that help people do simple tasks this is not an issue. But not all tasks are simple.

A lot of people are today working with (are users of) software of extraordinary complexity. This complexity is not necessarily a consequence of highly advanced algorithms or procedures, or of any intricate intellectual complexity, instead in many cases it is simply a consequence of a large number of variables and data, some kind of combinatorial complexity.  Examples of this kind of software is commonplace at your doctors office, your bank, your insurance company, and many other businesses and institutions. A lot of this software is aimed to support professionals dealing with scheduling, logistics, planning, recording, monitoring of processes and procedures.

The complexity or feature richness that  this type of software manifests is of course not a 'problem', instead it is a strength. The software is valuable exactly because it makes it possible to handle complex and rich information and data in a way that is impossible or extremely cumbersome with manual means. We might call this type of interactions for 'rich interactions'.

When we look at the field of HCI research today it is obvious that the area of 'rich interactions' is not particularly popular as a research topic. It seems as most research is aimed at making quite simple tasks even simpler by the design of interfaces that lead to smooth and enjoyable user experiences or aimed at introducing interactivity into areas where it has not existed before through smart devices, tangible interaction, etc. But where is the research that could actually bring the field forward and provide some insights about how to design 'rich interactions'?

I often hear or read colleagues in the field complaining and in many cases joking or being sarcastic about the state of the field when it comes to 'rich interactions', usually after having some personal experience in their encounter with a business or organization or in conversation around software such as MS Word or Adobe Illustrator. This kind of software is commonly seen as examples of failure when it comes to UX design since it is cumbersome to use, complicated, difficult to learn, etc.

It may be possible, of course, that some of the issues with this kind of rich interactions can be resolved with new forms of interfaces, new modes of interaction, clever interface solutions, etc. but it is not possible to reduce the richness by design. The richness is what makes the software valuable in the first place.

So, my question is, where is the HCI research that in some serious way is studying the nature of rich interactions? Where can we find insights, principles, and knowledge that could support those who are designing rich interactions?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Coding is not fun (and neither is design)

I completely agree with this short article by Walter Vannini titled "Coding is not ‘fun’, it’s technically and ethically complex". Vannini makes some simple and, in my view, very strong arguments why the attempt to make coding 'fun' is misguided and potentially harmful. The attempts in making coding 'fun' are similar to the attempts in making design 'easy'. In both cases we are dealing with powerful processes that can lead to immense transformations of our world. Why we need to see these processes as 'fun' and the ability to do it as 'easy' is highly problematic.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Composing some blogposts in a small ebook on "Design Thinking"

Ok, I am trying a software called Designrr. What they do is a tool that helps you to compose one or many blogposts into an ebook in a very simple way. I just did a very small test and collected a few of my latests posts related to the term "design thinking".

The ebook comes out in the form of a PDF. I have not put any effort really into layout or even fixing any language issues. I just wanted to see if it worked and I think it did. I might look more into this as a way of collecting and composing shorter writings into something longer and more substantial.

Here you can download the pdf.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Today's simplistic glorification of design and "The Burnout Society"

I am reading the book "The Burnout Society" by Byung-Chul Han. It is a very short book, only about 50 pages. Han is a Korean-born philosopher, now active in Germany. He has published a series of short books. 

I read this book as a serious critique of our modern society which Han gives different names, for instant 'the achievement society'. He argues that modern society has developed a culture where we believe we can do anything, “yes, we can”, where we are measured based on our achievements. He makes the case that people get sick and depressed not because they are burdened by what he calls disciplinary responsibility "but the imperative to achieve: the new commandment of late-modern labor society". People get burnout because of "creative fatigue and exhausted ability". We suffer from the "violence of positivity” that “does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts.” Han argues that we need more 'negativity', we need more "deep, contemplative attention", that is, less achieving and more reflection and to reach this we need "profound boredom" (p.12).
I find this book fascinating, even though I only read a few chapters, am looking forward to the rest. So, what does this have to do with design and the philosophy of design. Well, it is obvious to me that the character of the modern society that Han critiques includes the qualities that are commonly revered by those who advocate design, such as the ideas to design artifacts and systems that improves our ability to "do things" quicker, more effortless, removed from the restrictions of time, place and community. Designers commonly desire the creations of designs that are engaging, exciting, and positive. Almost everything that is part of today's simplistic glorification of design as the solution to every problem is based a philosophy that resembles what Han is critiquing in his book. I find this extraordinary refreshing and highly needed.