Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Build to Learn

There’s an important concept in design-thinking called “Build To Learn.” When we build to learn, we build stuff, quick and dirty prototypes, in order to figure out what the thing we are working on should be like. We build instead of just think about, or worry about, how the thing that we are working on might turn out. You hear writers talk about taking this leap of faith all of the time. When asked about their process, writers often reply  with something like, “I let the story take me where it wants to go.” They don’t have the story all figured out in their minds. They write, or build, to discover the story.

Of course to some extent we all do this occasionally. When we get lost in a car, for example, we’ll wander around aimlessly until we see something that we recognize. Or when we don’t have an ingredient for a recipe that we’re making we‘ll improvise and find something we think or hope will work as well as the ingredient in the script. We don’t know for sure that we’ll find our way in the car or that we’ll make a recipe that is tasty, but we have enough faith to keep working on it.

Yet, when it comes to work situations many of us fall into the trap of thinking that we need to figure out all of the details about how something will work without ever testing bits and pieces of it.

The picture above is of my students building an exhibit for Imagine RIT festival on May 7. As you can probably see in the photo, the students don’t know how every little detail will work out in the end. They are exploring the exhibit space by tinkering with it.  I’m happy to say that yesterday they made leaps and bounds  - more than they ever would have sitting at their desks just worrying about what might or might not be successful.

Building to learn is especially useful when we’re faced with several approaches to a problem and are having a difficult time figuring out which one is right. Instead of trying to guess which solution is the right one, we quickly build a few prototypes to help us decide. Some people resist this approach because they reason that building two or more prototypes is more work than building just one (I get this from my students a lot). But if we only build one solution to a problem and it fails, then we have to start all over again. Or even worse, we have to tolerate a poorly designed system just because we put “so much work into it” and can’t bear to throw it out and start again. Short-sightedness.

Building to learn is an aspect of a larger ethos at the core of design thinking: designers spend more time in the “fuzzy front end” of a project, building to learn, exploring many options so that we can test out a few things before we build and launch the “finished” version. It’s a difficult shift to make for some. But feel free to try it. Try it with something small like intentionally getting lost on a walk or improvising a recipe. Then see if you can apply that same way of working to a bigger project. And who knows, you may just discover something that you could have never found just sitting at your desk.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sign up for Design-thinking at RIT

Design-thinking is method for developing new products, services, and systems made popular by the Stanford The method takes cues from processes found in anthropology and fine art. We use anthropological processes to gain insights on stakeholders affected by our designs, for e.g., observing people in their natural environments.  And we use fine arts processes to develop creative prototypes, for e.g., navigating divergent and convergent thinking.

Make a bold move and join us. The course is open to all RIT students junior level and up. I haven't chosen the project for fall yet so if you have some ideas, leave a comment. (The project is different every quarter).

Course # 0102.421.01

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Divergent Thinking Isn't Enough

There’s a common misunderstanding about the creative process that keeps many of us from advancing our own creative skill. The misunderstanding is that creativity is about “following the muse,” doing whatever you want with no limits. This myth is further promoted by business magazines and television commercials that, say, celebrate everyday people covering their walls with ideas on post-its.
I teach design-thinking outside of a design school, so I get students who, on day one, don’t consider themselves creative, but because of this wide-spread conception of what creative thinking is it’s relatively easy for me to teach them how to generate a lot of ideas in one sitting. I teach students the’s guidelines for brainstorming and in a few weeks they are good at it. They’ve gone through many packs of post-its. This kind of brainstorming is called “divergent thinking,” as opposed to the more linearly-focused thinking, called “convergent thinking.”

But design is an iterative process, a constant push and pull between divergent AND convergent thinking. And teaching my students to change gears fluently is the more difficult challenge. Students who are given license to engage in divergent thinking don’t have a lot of practice transitioning back to convergent thinking. (This problem is what Jon Kolko, the director of Austin Center for Design, refers to as ‘the synthesis problem.’)

So in those cases when the instructor has taught students good divergent thinking, the problem is that students tend to either engage in it continuously (we’ve all experienced this, when the brainstorming just never ends) or they converge on the most familiar and safe idea they’ve come up with and pursue it exclusively. Either way is unproductive because the class is neglecting the potentially successful ideas they generate during the brainstorm. The real successful thinker transitions fluently from divergent to convergent thinking, to capture and pursue the best ideas.

I offer here a few tricks for navigating this transition from divergent to convergent thought.

If you have a wild idea that you want to explore, then choose a safer one and develop them both simultaneously. Similarly, if you are afraid to step out of your comfort zone, then work on a safe idea but also work on a wild one. This mode of working has at least two benefits:

1. In case your risky idea fails, you have something to fall back on.
2. Working on two ideas simultaneously will, most likely, produce a third, superior idea--a combination of the best parts from each.

This second reason is similar to a phenomenon Roger Martin from Rotman School of Management calls “the opposable mind,” which is a version of what John Keats called ‘negative capability’: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Do yourself a favor and choose a formal constraint to work with. Formal constraints are little tricks that designers use to create order from complexity. Sure, as a graduate student I railed against the grid - that comes with the graduate school territory - but in the end I came back to it with a new appreciation. The complexity of any situation is just too much to bear for an extended period. “Hire out” an organizing principle for your project - a limited color palette, a texture, a modular system, a metaphor. You can always stray from the constraint once you’ve established it; in fact, you should.

Good designers look to introduce new ideas with the intention that they will be adopted and spread. In contrast, an amateur designer will often say, “This new design is for everyone.” No, it’s not for everyone. It may be for a wide range of people, but it’s not for everyone. Good designers identify all of the people who are affected by their design and focus on those who are most likely to pick it up first. They design for those people. And when they are really good they design with them. Any successful start-up spends lots of time with early adopters until they are not only comfortable with, but enthusiastic about, your design. They will be your evangelists, your advocates, your marketers. But you have to spend some focused time with them.

I was invited to a tech-development meeting the other day because the team wanted to bring in a designer to get feedback on their mobile interface. When I got to the meeting, I was shown static wire frames of the interface and was then asked questions such as “Do you think this button would look better here or there?” I was asked these questions because people think designers are put on this earth to make stuff look cool. But they are not. They are put on this earth to make stuff work well. And stuff works well not in a static way, but over time. Any design has three time-based scenarios that the designer needs to be concerned with:
1. How do I attract  a new user to my design?
2. Once I attract her, how do I engage her with the design?
3. Once she is finished, how do I get her to come back and bring friends?

The successful designer transitions fluently from divergent to convergent thinking, to capture and pursue the best ideas. To help them do this, they can choose two ideas (one safe, one wild); choose a formal constraint; choose early adopters; or choose a time-line.


Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Design Human Centered Cities

I teach a design-thinking class at RIT and each quarter we use human-centered design principles to approach a different project. This quarter our project is focused on our city, Rochester, NY. Inspired by a design brief issued by Fabrica called "Looking Back, Designing, Forward," we are surveying the city's recent history and then engaging in what Roger Martin and Charles Sanders Pierce before him calls abductive reasoning. We are asking, “What might be?” The answer to this question will be on display at the 4th annual Imagine RIT festival in the lobby of Saunders College of Business. If you are in the area on May 7, come visit our  "Imagine Rochester 2020" exhibit and let us know what you think.

As a result of guiding my students through this project, I am thinking almost at every turn about urban design. When I was driving along Niagara Street in Buffalo a few weeks back, I was saddened that I couldn't see the Niagara River just a few meters away. What blocked my view was a wall of rusted out factories, one after the other. It was clear to me that whoever wrote the zoning for this piece of land had a technology-centered perspective and not a human-centered one. Those zoning decisions were now keeping me from seeing a beautiful river valley just a few feet to my right. If the infrastructure along the river-way had been designed with humans in mind, my view would have been very different. The emotions I would’ve experienced toward the city would have been joy and pride instead of sadness and alienation.

My students and I spent the first half of the quarter meeting with visionary systems-thinkers in the city of Rochester. We've met with farmers, educators, clean-fuel producers, green-jobs facilitators, and beyond. All of these people have a grand vision for the future of our city, and while they employ new technology to reach their goals, human interests are at the center of their thinking. Yet, when my students and I came back to the studio to synthesize the data we’d collected, tech-centered ideology showed its face. Students easily rattled off the technological innovations they had observed in the field.

For example, we started digging deeper into one student’s celebration of Rochester's technological exports. To bring into view a human-centered perspective, I asked, "What benefits do these exports provide the citizens of the city of Rochester?" The easy answer is that the exports bring more money into the city, but I wanted more, so I pushed them to dig deeper. The students quickly got to the heart of the issue, I think, when they articulated this series of claims: "Exporting brings global firms to Rochester." Good, good. "Global firms come to Rochester because they want to stay in New York State." Very good. "And if global firms are coming downtown, then more people are downtown and a demand for downtown revitalization is created." Bingo.

Downtown revitalization. We came to it ourselves. It's one thing to read about it in the paper, it's another to start at one seemingly isolated point, exports, and arrive at downtown revitalization. As you locals know, ever since the decline and eventual demolition of Midtown Plaza, America's first urban mall c. 1962, Rochester has been struggling with the question, "What will be our new identity, the new symbol for downtown?" As we ask these big questions, we need to think beyond technology and beyond economic development, lest we line the river with more factories. Don’t get me wrong, technology and economy are essential, but we need to always remember that they are a means to an end. The end is to encourage more people, especially young talent, to stay in Rochester. Certainly creating more jobs will do that, and certainly developing new technology can create more jobs. However, anyone who works in a university incubator knows about the struggles of turning new technology into new jobs. So we need to think about human-centered innovations too, by asking questions such as “How do we engage citizens of the city of Rochester on an emotional level? How do we create emotional ties to the city? How do we engage human concerns like justice, health, equality, and the arts, not just by way of not-for-profit programs, but in plans that integrate economic and technology development?”

These questions about human-centered innovations are difficult to form, and their benefits are more difficult to measure than those of technological and economic innovations. As author Hilary Austen points out, we tend to run like hell from difficult questions like these. But to change our current urban plight, we must face these difficult questions. If we’re not exploring questions such as “How do we create an emotionally engaging Rochester,”  then we won’t change our current state.