2014/10/21 Erik Stolterman, “Improving Design without Destroying It” (web video)

A designerly approach is contrasted with a scientific approach or an artistic approach by Erik Stolterman, Professor Informatics, Indiana University.

Here’s some excerpts from the video hangout with CHI Belgium posted at http://youtu.be/zDrmzC8Ep-U?t=4m49s  .

[8:45] Maybe it’s more like a dilemma.  How can you improve design work without destroying it?

[9:40] When I talk about design now, today, I do talk about design as it is practiced in the field oF HCI and interaction design.  It’s the professional practice of interaction design that I’m discussing.   However, I think that it might be applied to any design field, but that might be a topic for another discussion.

[10:25] It seems today like every business, or every agency, or every institution believes that they should adopt some type of design thinking, because if you do, you become better at what you do in some way.  [….]

[11:20] There is a problem with this.  There is a problem that a lot of people realized, because when you accept that design a way of approaching how to create new technologies, how to create new applications, how to create new interactive systems, you’re going to create it in a designerly way.

[11:55] First of all, what do you mean by a designerly way?  The other question is why do you do it, what are the benefits of it?  And the third piece is what I want to talk about.  Let’s say there is a good reason for doing it — there is a good reason for doing it in a designerly way in HCI — then how can you prove that?  And this is where the dilemma comes in.

[12:30]  Why do people believe that a designerly approach is a good thing, in our field.  First of all, you have to accept that doing things in a designerly way is a choice.  It’s not that have do it in that way.  You can choose any other approach.  You can chose a scientific approach, you can choose an artistic approach, you can choose an engineering approach.  You can choose a religious approach, if you want to.  It’s possible.

[13:10] The choice you make is based on the idea that you believe that picking one approach instead of another gives you some benefit that you believe is beneficial to you.

[13:40] For people who already know design, and are engaged in design, it’s has become more and more obvious over the years that design itself has become a disciplined practice.  A lot of people who don’t know design or haven’t work with design don’t see it as a disciplined practice.  […]

[14:10] When you ask someone what is design, they come up with these descriptions that are unfortunate in many ways.  They say, well, it’s not as rational or logical as say, a scientific approach, and it’s not so stable and structured as an engineering approach, so what’s left is that design becomes this approach that is non-structured, irrational, no one really knows what it is, and it seems like anything goes.  That’s a problem.

[14:50]  If you do understand the designerly way of doing things, you do understand that it requires a disciplined way of working.  It requires a designerly logic.  It requires a designerly, rigourous way of doing things.

[15:20]  This approach, design, delivers unique outcomes.  It can help to create new things, innovative things, things we haven’t thought of, before.

[15:50] So what’s the bad side?  The problem with design is that it’s not predictable.  It’s not very efficient, necessarily.  It’s filled with risk. It’s super risky.  It demands a lot of competence or skills that are not easy to acquire.  It’s not that you become a designer by reading an article and applying what you’ve learned.  That’s not how it really works.

[16:50] And you never really know if you’ve solved the problem.  Design doesn’t solve problems.  Design changes reality.  There is no way — and this is a big problem with designers working with non-designerly people — is that you say, well, this is where we ended up, and maybe the client says that’s not what we asked for.  Well, no, but we realized through the design process that that problem that was defined was not really the problem, so we went back, and we rethought things, and we changed the way we think about the situation, and based on that, we came up with this other possible solution.  So this is the design we ended up with.  And that sounds very strange to people who are not a design thinking mode, because it becomes complete unpredictable.

[17:45]  If you’re a client, and you want to hire designer to build an interactive application, and they suddently come up with something completely different, how do you understand that, how do you work with that?  As a client, it’s difficult.  How do you work that with a client?  This is something that designers also understand.  They understand that the way we work, with iteration, with prototyping, and experimenting and exploring, where we change both the problem and the solution at the same time through the process we’ve never done, we just run out of money.  There are no right or wrong solutions, there are just solutions with consequences.  […]

[18:20] A lot of people who work in this area with design and a designerly approach do understand that it’s problematic to explain design, and it has its limits.  For instance, the predictability, the risks, the inefficiency, and all of those things.  It’s very expensive.  It’s cery complex.  It requires competence.

[18:45] So they start to try to improve design. And this is where the dilemma comes in.  I call it the improvement trap.  It is a trap.  What happens is that even good designers look at the design process themselves, and they say, maybe we can make this more efficient; maybe we can make it more predictable; maybe we can make it less person-dependent.  So they try to change the design process itself, so it doesn’t have the weaknesses that a lot of people see in design.  At the same time, this is the trap.

[19:40]  It seem to be the case that almost all of those improvements are not necessarily improvements.  They change the design process into something else.  And if you do enough of those improvements, you might actually end up with a design process that isn’t design anymore.  It’s a completely different process.  It’s not a designerly approach.  Because now, it has taken on all these other things, from other approaches.  And what that means that it can’t deliver anymore.

[20:20]  So what is it that it can’t deliver?  It can’t deliver these unique outcomes, these new innovative outcomes that surprise people, and fascinate people with these new possibilities.  Because if you restrict the design process so that it becomes a non-design process, then it can’t deliver the outcomes that the design process has, over time, become very good at delivering.

[20:55]  This can happen in any field.  If we take art, for instance, in art, we do know that most people accept the artistic approach as a way of creating highly personal artistic expressions about the world, or about a reality.  What’s problematic with the artistic approach?  First of all, it’s so slow.  It’s very person-dependent.  Let’s take an efficiency perspective on art.  Art is very difficult to manage,  You never really know when this artist will produce a piece of art.  So, if what you want to do is to make art more efficient, and less person-dependent, let’s have instead of having one artist that creates these personal expressions about reality, let’s hire ten who would do the same thing.  Then we have ten different people who would create the same type of artistic expressions.  If you think about that, almost everyone, even if they don’t understand art, would say, well, that’s crazy, you can’t do that.  If you that, then it’s not art anymore, and now it’s something completely different.  It’s a process that is kind of streamlined, people have to do the same thing.  Of course, it is now, which was the purpose, person-independent, it’s efficient and fast.  But at the same time, most people would argue, it’s not art anymore.  And the outcome will not be considered to be art.

[22:40]  You can take the same thing with science, which is just the opposite, actually.  If you take science as the example, science is a really great approach to create really stable truths about reality, and it does that based on time.  It’s also a very slow and difficult process, and it has to be person-independent, so it’s contrary to art this is person-dependent.  Anyone who does science is supposed to come up with the same result.  So, why not make science more efficient?  Why have have people who want certain results pay individual scientists to come up with the results that they’re looking for?  That would be much more efficient.  It just sounds so crazy, so we wouldn’t even consider those consider that idea, even though we have those examples from, say, the tobacco industry, who have paid for a lot of interesting studies over the years.  We all know that, and everybody says that’s valid research, that’s not the way it can be done.

[24:10] So there are some intrinsic approaches of these approaches that cannot really be changed, because if you do change them, you lose the whole purpose with that particular approach.  [….]

[33:30]  If you want to do work to improve design,  the best thing you can do to improve design today is to not manipulate the process, but to create a better understanding of the process.  I would like to see more people focusing on the understanding part on what makes design unique instead of focusing on coming up with improved ways of changing the process.

[….]

[37:30] A designerly approach is the approach that we take or humans uses when they want to come up with something not yet existing.  If you want to produce something, and you already know what it is, if it’s just a matter of creating it in a little bit of a variation, or in a better, maybe improve it in some way, it always has a little bit of design challenge to it, but it is mostly not a design challenge.

[38:10] A designer approach to me is the approach where you start out with the situation, maybe a problem, but it’s not.  During the process, you realize that  the problem is not necessarily what we thought it was.  During the process, the solution changes constantly, the problem changes constantly, and the idea about what you need to do next changes constantly.  So there is this kind of very strange, nonlinear play dynamic between the situation and the problem on one hand, the solution and the final design on the other hand, and the process on the third.  And they all influence each other.  So, that’s why it’s so difficult for designers to, in advance, say what they’re going to do.

[39:10] The design process is this very dynamic complex process that unfolds when you get to deep dive into the situation and the people and the limitations and everything that you have to deal with.  The process unfolds.  The only thing you can do, and this is what designers do, of course, you can describe the process on a high level, and you can talk about, well, we have the phase when we have to talk about the problem, and then we have the phase where we come up with some initial ideas, and then we have the phase when we do more detailed design.  That is correct on some very abstract level, but we all know, at any time in this process, it can jump back, almost to the beginning to reframe the whole problem, and it takes a completely different way.

[40:10] That, to me, is the designerly approach.  It’s this approach where you, in a dynamic way, work between the problem, the solution and the process, and they define each other in a way that almost no other process really does.