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.  

1 comment:

  1. I think the concept of short-term experiments is a very important one. It's interesting to see the buzz the Harvard Business Review on Failure is getting this month. Unless one tries things, there is no way to tell what will or will not work.

    In Project Management, we study the idea of doing quick experiments and side projects during a lengthy project. These experiments help us understand white space and integration issues in our project instead of putting it all together at the end.


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