Reflections on meaning making


Design thinking is better guessing

I want to write a book just so i can use this as the title!

If we take seriously the notion that abduction is somewhere at the core of the defining features of Design thinking, then the design act is “shot through” with acts of guessing. Don’t blame me – blame C.S. Pierce for pointing this out. But also be very clear that guessing well is no mean feat. In fact

a) it’s the source of every original human thought

b) it can be developed into a very, very skilful mode of thinking – check out the work of Frank Ghery if you want to see a contemporary master of the guessing process.

The problem with “design”

Some months ago I wrote:

“Collopy (2009) expresses concern that “the drive to nail down ‘design thinking’ has the same normative flavour that has restricted the spread of systems thinking. The urge to create a framework that specifies what and how a Design Thinker proceeds seems not just futile but dangerous to the survival of a movement aimed at expanding the kinds of thinking that managers, policy makers and citizens engage in.”

The flipside of Collopy’s concern about poorly advised, premature and/or partial attempts to nail down Design Thinking is of course the “white noise” that is completely engulfing the discourse about Design Thinking, an absence of robust distinctions and durable constructions that will leave no discernable frameworks once the fad tsunami has receded.”

I remember when I wrote my masters thesis – that I drew heavily on philosophy of science, and was intimidated by Feyerabends scathing remarks that the field had been “invaded by creeps and incompetents” (This was in an early edition of Against Method – he later edited it out…). I felt tentative then about adding my voice to either class, and I am reminded that I am at risk again when I enter the design thinking discourse.

But having been at DTRS8, one of the problems seems to be that after 40+ (60+?) years of design research, and 20 years of a forum dedicated to DESIGN THINKING research, there is still not sufficient agreement in the room on what “design thinking” means for the discussion to move on without that topic being close to the surface every other half hour…

This situation of course sets up a vicious cycle. In the absence of a consensus “ever man does what is right in his own eyes”, and so people as creepy and incompetent as me are compelled to arrive at their own working definitions in order to proceed. So thats what I have done.

My only new thought today, somewhat trivial, most probably extensively reflected on elsewhere, that I will test with a linguist one day, is to wonder what effect the part of speech that the word “design” represents, and how much the difference with the word “science” hasn’t prevented some simple analogical frameworks between the two modes of activity and cognition being readily grasped. The problem is that I can say designing, but not sciencing, etc. Something as simple as this can be very disruptive in conversation. I am driven to circumlocutions exactly when i need to be crisp… Is there a science thinking research conference somewhere?

Locating “Design” Thinking

I suggested to one of the coordinators for DTRS8 that a process that might have guided conversation could be derived from the adage that “truth proceeds more readily from error than from confusion”. After a few rounds which seemed to pivot on what we even included in design, let alone design thinking, I would have been happy to let the conversation rage around my own proposition, not to emerge triumphant, but just to have a locus for the conversation. This is some text and a graphic that didn’t make the cut into my paper for DTRS8, but I still find useful:

It is one thing to identify a distinctive kind of human thinking, and observe that it has a distinctive toolkit. It is another to presume to identify that with the profession of design. So why “Design Thinking”?

Why “Design” Thinking?

Firstly, I am comfortable to call this observed phenomenon “Design Thinking” because of where it fits in a taxonomy of thinking for human enterprise (Figure 1.)

Figure 1: A partial taxonomy of thinking types used in human enterprise

The language and concepts in Figure 1 are intentionally “naive”, and unashamedly metaphorical. This is not a taxonomy based on brain scans or cognitive research. It is an illustration of the patterns of thinking observed to occur when humans are pursuing purposeful enterprises. Within those patterns, it is most natural to our routine conceptual categories to place Design Thinking in the same class as other activities that make things in the face of indeterminacy. And as the figure suggests, it is useful to continue the “taxonomy” to distinguish the new design genus – Design Thinking.

Brief revitalisation of blog?

Currently at the Design Thinking Research Symposium (#8) – at UTS this year.

Kees Dorst is to be congratulated for breaking the “reading of paper” mould for such things. We are following a very different dialog process based around our posters, not our papers – the experiment is half way to night and we’ll see how he fares. For my money there is something very necessary about design researchers coming to terms experientially with different conversation formats.

Since I last blogged I’ve moved on from 2nd Road – so I’ve included my “signature” in this email for your interest…

David Jones

Expert in Organisational Knowledge Processes
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Is behavioural science such a great step forward for customer experience?

A client asked me to comment on a recent paper (Feb 2010) from McKinsey & Company entitled “Using behavioral science to improve the customer experience”, which itself was based on a HBR article from some years back (Richard B. Chase and Sriram Dasu, “Want to perfect your company’s service? Use behavioral science,” Harvard Business Review, June 2001, Volume 79, Number 6, pp. 78–84). The article basically laid out Chase’s four behavioural principles:

· Dilute/splice unpleasant stuff with pleasures, so that customers focus on the positive.

· Let customers stick to their habits rather than disorient them with unexpected change.

· Give customers choice, so they feel more in control of the interaction.

· Get bad experiences over early as the final elements of the interaction will persist in the customers memory.

The behavioral science principles are just that. They are like design principles – except that the population they apply to is “humans”.

This creates an interesting opportunity. You can take these principles – or go one better and take any of the segment-based design principles you discover through your design team’s work – and you can use them in abstraction – eg you could go through ANY of your direct marketing processes, or literature, or call centre practices, or client service touch points, and apply them a la this article – “scientifically”, “rigorously”, etc. And that’s fine. Buts it’s also a blunt instrument, and has risk. That doesn’t mean don’t – it just means it has risk, and you do a cost benefit calculation.

But it is not magic. Take for example two of the four practices mentioned in the piece:

a) Provide consistency – get out of the way /don’t intrude when I’m doing a transaction – I want it low noise.

b) Don’t be brusque in interacting with me – stay personal, not just transactional

(The more principles you discover, and the more situations you try t apply them to, the more you will discover these tensions within your list of principles.)

How the heck do I hold those two together in real life? The answer is it’s a wicked problem, and you need design. And guess what, if you use design instead of abstracted behavioural science principles to guide your customer interactions, then you take real-time guidance from customers about how they want the two resolved – the resolution is inherently contextual and fit to the audience.

Features of Design Thinking: Intent?

To even start writing in this space, I have to introduce my definition of “intent” that I am working from. It is this:

“Intent is the articulated entry of care into a work system”

In most designers this care is present as love or even passion, but I have learned to be content in business if I can just get a sponsor to care, and to make that care explicit by saying clearly “This is what I want….”

I can of course enter into conversations where we talk about intent in much wider terms – as something foundational in our frontal lobe activity that is necessary to our capacity to stay on topic in generative acts of language. But let me reign in the scope here for the purposes of this series.

To understand the place of intent in design thinking, I have to introduce you to another heuristic – the knowledge development pathway. You can read about this at length at (insert blog address), so I won’t labor the topic here. My contention is that the epistemic act we have been describing here is so foundational that it actually patterns the way we approach generative acts on every scale. In simple terms, this:

maps onto this:

when we scale up our personal epistemic acts to social and systemic dimensions.

We are then able to see something really important about intent:

So I don’t think I would call intent a feature of design thinking, but rather a necessary concomitant. If you find acts you recognise as design, you will find intent at work. And if you find people with high intent, you will usually find the eruption of generative thought that matches the description of design.

Equipping design thinkers inside corporations, who have grown up in other traditions of work that those requiring design activity, will require the cultivation, the re-energising of their frontal lobes.

The early days of my consulting career were with Golsby-Smith Associates. One of my associates had a background as a speech pathologist, and her research and clinical work had been specifically around the language patterns of individuals with frontal lobe trauma (such as car crash victims in the days before compulsory seatbelts reduced the risk that your body was going to use your forehead as its way to force through windshields and other car parts). Anne famously reported that many CEOs she worked with showed the same incapacity to stay on topic and sustain intent that she observed in her brain-damaged clients. This echoed intensely for me with Ian Mitrof’s quote (as president of the International Systems Society, or some such, somewhere around 1993):

The “extent of fragmentation in the minds of trained scientists is such as to require therapeutic invention”

There is much about the education we have received, the work we do, and our stock-standard thinking processes in the modern world that does not activate intent. We are trained to NOT care, to take ourselves, our personal presence out of the equation. Oh sure, we are supposed to worry things through, to care in the way it takes to care that I produce the right answer in the algorithm I have been set, to persist. But these are shallow echoes of the agility and subtlety of intent that needs to be exercised in designing for corporate messes. We are unexercised in its presence, and unskilled in its use. This is the challenge design thinking faces.