Monday, June 24, 2013

Outsmarting Ambiguity

Panelists: Ré Dubhthaigh, Nuala Flood, Alex Milton, Frank Devitt, Frank Long and Morgan McKeagney.

“A metaphor for a complex problem is playing chess, while a metaphor for an ambiguous problem is having your in-laws over for dinner for the first time.” 
— Udaya Patnaik of Jump Associates interviewed in Design & Thinking

I attended the screening of the documentary ‘Design & Thinking’ organised by IxDA Dublin at the Sugar Club on Tuesday 18 June 2013. I was interested in this event because my own areas of activity now tend far less towards designing as a form-giver, but rather towards acting as the kind of ‘solver of ambiguous problems’ discussed in this film. (Something I was working through in this post I wrote in 2011.) As more of the issues I am being asked to address by my clients and the kinds of thinking I am delivering for them are now increasingly straying into UX territory. So I wanted to inform myself more about the topic of ‘Design Thinking’ and its practices. This event seemed like a good opportunity.

Unfortunately, the documentary film itself was a big disappointment to me. It turned out to be a flawed investigation, lacking the necessary depth of insight into its subject matter. Perhaps best indicated by how the film was over-enamoured with the initial creative brainstorming phase of the design process. Perhaps the panning shots of studio walls festooned with multi-coloured Post-It Notes is a visual trope and signifier that the film-makers felt necessary to incorporate, but it is a somewhat tired visual and already a cliche.

This film’s viewpoint tended to reinforce the fallacy of the Creative Design Thinker as a modern day Randian figurehead, whose burning clarity of perception, restless vitality of innovation and benignly insightful oversight would inevitably always solve everyone else’s problems.

Less seriously, some of the more outré West Coast cultural idiosyncrasies on display did not play well to the Irish audience. With the result that some of the more thoughtful insights and learning moments within the film got lost amongst all of the Zen Beanbag Boardrooms and the Office Hammocks.

In what seems a glaring omission to me, the film failed to show many, if any, realised design outputs from all of the Design Thinking discussed.

The film was mostly constructed from a series of interviews and, as is usually the case with that structure, some interviewees were far more informative and engaging than others. The final cut was too fragmented, both in its content and its structure. The overall thesis and narrative thread needed better definition, clarification, and expression. The content would have been far better served by a tighter edit and a shorter running time. Fundamentally this film failed to present any reasoned analysis of its subject.

The evening was not a total bust however, as there was an interesting panel discussion afterwards. There were five panelists.
Morgan McKeagney, Managing Director at iQ Content.
Frank Long, Director at
Frank Devitt, Head of the Department of Design Innovation at NUI Maynooth.
Alex Milton, Head of Design in the Faculty of Design at NCAD.
Nuala Flood, architect and PhD Researcher at Trinity College Dublin.
The panel was hosted by Ré Dubhthaigh.

Although the panel all agreed on the shortcomings of the underwhelming documentary, there was still plenty to discuss concerning the core topic of Design Thinking itself.

Devitt defined Design Thinking as taking design processes and methodologies and applying them to problems which are not traditionally design-related.

MCKeagney spoke about using Design Thinking to give clients new tools that help them to frame their problems better and collaborative tools that change experiences and cultures within huge organisations.

Long added the proviso that it is critical to always recognise that Design Thinking is not simply just a movement. While it is advocated and promoted by Ideo and their ilk, it is also a service which is packaged and sold by those companies as well. However, the general upside of their selling of Design Thinking as a service is that it is helping to raise the profile of design in general at executive and board levels within the largest organisations.

Professor Milton addressed some of the benefits of Design Thinking within design education.
Milton: Design Thinking helps educate people to think in different ways through the use of design processes, rather than teaching them how to learn to become designers.
He said that one huge challenge for design educators today is to teach integration. As designers his students shall need to design truly end-to-end experiences, not merely products or services and they need to learn to design with users not just for users.

One of the ideas that resonated with the panel was to always remember that designers are not the Ne Plus Ultra of thinkers, and that to be effective they really need to understand the core problems of users.
McKeagney: As designers it is vital that we know the limits of what we do not know — so that we do not do any damage.
One of the most alluring traps within the Design Thinking philosophy is a notion that if only designers were given free reign they could solve everything. Some of the interviewees in the film also identified and skewered that particular fallacy.
Milton: Designers just cannot know it all. So while you must strive to have both breadth and depth in your knowledge, you also must have real empathy for and respect for, the other disciplines you are going to need to collaborate with. 
The counterpoint to those statements is that it is also true that design professionals too often underplay their own value: to their personal detriment and to that of the broader design sector. So there is an essential unavoidable dichotomy there and quite a tricky balancing point to be reached.
Devitt: Designers can ‘know more than they know they know’ and can have far more value to offer than they may often think. 
The panel discussed how the application of Design Thinking could benefit Ireland at the macro level.

McKeagney argued that in Ireland our fundamental lack of considered long-term systems thinking across multiple inter-related domains has contributed to our country falling into the situation that we are in today. (Un-Designed Thinking?)

He posited that re-designing Ireland to become a more design-centric society is a truly Wicked Problem. Particularly as, in practice, our education system seems to not value creative thinking.

To address those failings the panel did think that the principles of Design Thinking could prove beneficial if implemented by Government.

McKeagney believes that local government is a vast potential audience for Design Thinking. There is huge value to them in being able to prototype by releasing beta products early and iterating on them based on real usage and feedback.

Flood endorsed that view, adding that Design Thinking gives local government the ability to trial things. They need to learn to try and to fail and to prototype and to iterate, rather than to always have to button everything down one hundred percent prior to release. A lot of the approaches within Design Thinking are still new ideas for many within the civil service.

Although in McKeagney’s experience Irish local government still tends to mostly resist beta testing, even on huge services with national roll-outs. He said the underlying reason given is invariably something along the lines of “we can’t look like we don’t know what we are doing…”

Finally, there was one interesting closing point, which really deserved following-up but panel time ran short. Devitt observed that:
There is a greater context here, Design Thinking is also a facet of a general societal movement: which is the ongoing humanisation of all of the professions.
I had to miss the post-panel networking, which was unfortunate as I would enjoy engaging in more depth on some of the topics discussed. Considering the breadth of the Design Thinking spectrum covered tonight — from UX Design through to Policy Design — I would be interested to see how the in-depth systems thinking I practice in developing brand architectures and corporate identity systems could also be applied to inform and contribute to the kinds of problem-solving discussed.

Note: It is important to qualify that all of the attributed statements above are extrapolated and paraphrased from my (pretty concise) notes and none are verbatim quotations. If I have seriously misquoted anyone please do let me know.