Hey Interaction Designer! Are you a rocket scientist?

I was having dinner with some friends, we inevitably came across some pretty geeky topics: recursion, evolution and relativity were amongst them… To make it more interesting for me, I drew analogies to my work in my mind. The techniques that Turin, Darwin, and Einstein all used to help them arrived at their world-changing scientific discoveries and theories are the ones core to our Interaction Design work. Maybe “design is rocket science” after all? Well, I haven’t figured that out yet, everyday passes, I feel differently about it.

Turing and simplification

Turing, the father of computing, whose work led us to early computing theories like recursion and eventually led to progress in artificial intelligence, used the simplication method to design his Turing Machine studies.

When challenged with the question of can machines think, Turing devised the Turing machine experiment to answer this question. “Turing originally proposed the test in order to replace the emotionally charged and (for him) meaningless question “Can machines think?” with a more well-defined one. The advantage of the new question, he said, was that it ‘drew a fairly sharp line between the physical and intellectual capacities of a man.‘” (Turing on Wikipedia)
(From plus.math.org)

What can we learn from this?
Interaction Designers are often faced with trying to answer deeply complex problems. Like Turing, we have to rely on the method of simplification as a way of problem solving. When we are handed a problem, they are often accompanied by a lot of opinions, conjectures, solutions; we are handed documentations written by stakeholders, SMEs, and even customers themselves. We read and listen to all of them, and we have to distill all of that into a very simple problem definition in order to help everyone see clearly what really is the problem that we are trying to solve. My experience is that when we can do that well, we provide a clear vision for a product beyond the design work. And that is when we get to sit in on strategic level conversations. Thus, this ability can help us make huge changes in places we work.

Darwin lets his observation lead his scientific inquiries

Darwin, the father of modern science, began his scientific inquisitions with observation in the field. Like modern day designers and scientists, he spent time in the field. He attentively saw everything around him and let nature be in control of guiding him to answer questions and to raise questions he didn’t know to raise.

(From Wikipedia, “The voyage of the beagle”):

“The Beagle survey took five years, two-thirds of which Darwin spent on land. He carefully noted a rich variety of geological features, fossils. At intervals during the voyage he sent specimens to Cambridge together with letters about his findings, and these established his reputation as a naturalist. His extensive detailed notes showed his gift for theorising and formed the basis for his later work. The journal he originally wrote for his family, published as and living organisms, and methodically collected an enormous number of specimens, many of them new to science.The Voyage of the Beagle, summarises his findings and provides social, political and anthropological insights into the wide range of people he met, both native and colonial.

What can we learn from this?
In a business world, we are taught to focus on figuring out the problem and coming up with a solution with as little time as possible. Designers can find themselves in situations where their stakeholders and those who pay for their work do not appreciate observational research. It’s not just business people, I have even worked with people who are UX professionals who did not have that appreciation. When you are asked to find out questions to a fixed list of questions, you may be motivated to just do that. Well, don’t! That prevents you from doing great things. If Darwin had a preset of questions and only followed them, the world will be a different place today.

Noticing things while we are out in the field is probably one of the most important things a designer can do for his/her own work and for organizations that pay them.

Einstein went with his hunches

When Einstein was solving the relativity problem, he had a hunch about something – “the speed of light is constant”. While it was just a hunch, he was willing to let it lead him for a while on this scientific inquisition and see where it would take him. This flexibility in thinking ultimately led him to the theory of E=MC2 and his theories changed the world we live in.

“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions. But, thinking it through afterwards, you can always discover the reasons which have led you unconsciously to your guess and you will find a logical way to justify it. Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” (Via article: Einstein’s Discovery of Relativity by John Stachel)

“I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.” (Via article: Holy Curiosity, Time.com)

What can we learn from this?
Often, when we conduct user research we get these inexplicable hunches – be it some new inspiration, a new idea about the customer behavior you can’t quite articulate and have not enough evidence to back up, a design idea that is premature… If you pay attention to these hunches and let them pull you a bit in your research, they often help you form powerful inspirations at the end for solid design concepts.

Be flexible in the field and let your observations guide you instead of the list of questions your team came up with before you started the research. Because once a problem is better understood, the list of questions you started off with will no longer be relevant. Because as you observe and listen to your customers, they tell you things you didn’t even know to ask.

Simply, if you get a hunch about something, treat it like an information scent. Tirelessly pursue it. Pay attention to it and keep following your instincts. Keep inquiring about it. Notice it in the environment, in conversations, in artifacts, in the way people express their needs, desires and emotions… As you keep paying attention and letting yourself connect, this connection will eventually serve as the ground for your design. It will help you inspire others.

When I let myself do research this way, I come up with designs that have cores. Designs that don’t break. Once you put a core in your design, it is like the personality we develop as children; it’s not something people can easily change. When a design doesn’t have a core, it breaks easily when people question it or when they want to add things to it. The personality you develop as a child stays with you no matter how much you’ve been through, it’s genuine to you, it makes you you. A design that has a core will not be frankeisteined when it grows — all products grow, you can’t help that — but you, the designer can help it grow healthily and beautifully by first providing it a core.

I started to realized the powerfulness of hunches when I had an experience working with someone who doesn’t work this way. When I expressed my hunches, I was questioned, and when I couldn’t back up the fuzziness, I was discouraged to keep pursuing them. I couldn’t convince my team to give up the list of questions and let the evidence lead us. Well, due to my own inexperience, I thought maybe this other way is a more certain way, so I went with their method. Later on in the project, I realized that I should have pursued my hunches because though I managed to give the design as much integrity as possible by articulating the business and user needs to back up the concepts, the design had no core. I know now that it is something that will cause us problems later as the design grows. Certainly, that happened before we even got out of the concept phase and the concept phase dragged on and on.

In conclusion…
So, I didn’t answer the question if you are a rocket scientist or not. But you certainly can use the same scientific inquiry techniques as these great people:

  1. Simplify problem definitions: problems are complex, simplify them, your solution will follow in that course.
  2. Observe and follow scents: when you are out in the field, observe the environment, listen to what people say, follow the information scent they are trying to give you. Put your subjects in control of delivering you questions and answers. Trust them, they will lead you to find what you need to know, not a preset fixed list of questions.
  3. Follow your hunches: following your hunches will lead you to ask questions that helps you get to a good design. This allows you to give a core to your product, allowing it to grow elegantly.

1 Response to “Hey Interaction Designer! Are you a rocket scientist?”

  1. 1 Daniel Szuc Tuesday, September 4, 2007 at 9:20 am

    Great post!

    Core is really, really important. This is where we see so many products go wrong.

    a) They dont understand their core

    b) They dont see how their core is different to the compeition

    c) They implement more and more crap around the core – so users don’t get it!

    Understanding your core, makes it easy for everyone in the organization to sell what you do and who knows even come up with a “tag line”

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