Design Age: Six Characteristics of Modern Design

Design Age; Six Characteristics of Modern Design

I've been trying to describe the means and methods of failures in the larger design profession for a few years now. Every time I think I might have some of it defined, I find more to work on and less confident of a succinct set of reasons. The old "the more you know the more you don't know" paradox. If we look at software design is a veritable Eden of failure and and looks like a Gobi desert of success. The expectations of success for software design, delivery and maintenance are so low right now that anything that even looks or smells like it might be a partial success is hailed as a breakthrough. But compare metrics of completed, tested and proven work over time against any other domain and you see how horribly we fail as software designers. But I don't want to waste all my rocks on the lowly IT folks, there's plenty to go around in the physical product design professions as well, and don't forget the built environment folks who haven't had a serious  breakthrough in productivity since the Department of Commerce began tracking such stuff over 45 years ago. By the way software is in the non-farm sector, so that line would be better if it were taken out.

While I'm still looking for more definition around the failure of more and more design projects I have found six characteristics which I and others seem to find present more often than not. If you read my lead-off post about wicked problems I confess some of these characteristics define wicked problems, but more on that later.

Here are the Six.
1. Solutions are needed to further understand the problem.
2. There is no point defined before we begin that says we have solved the problem. Rittel called this the "no stopping rule."
3. Every problem is unique unto itself.
4. Hence, every solution is "one-off" not to be repeated again.
5. Solutions are not right or wrong.
6. There is no commonly understood alternative solution

So, for all you Type A control freaks out there (I'm one as well.) this is not good news. Just when you think you have an answer to a really difficult problem, there is someone out there ready and willing to punch really big, and I mean huge honking holes in your precious solution you've been working on for the past year. So what are the quintessential problem solvers to do? Horst Rittel thought it might be irrational to continue trying to solve problems of the more complex nature by individuals, since the iterative definition of solutions lead to more problems in an ever spiraling circle of failure.

Now there has to be some kind of way out of our dilemma and several folks over the past 25 years have suggested that first we quit trying to solve difficult problems as individuals. Get more people together, get more experience together, and then agree to ground rules that let you work together productively. One of the first, and rather off-putting to our democratic sensibilities, is that majority agreement does not always rule. Rather seek a plurality of consensus not agreement. I know it's a fine line we tread here, but it is a central tenant for making any progress with these difficult problems. Consensus is that dirty little secret lying in the closets of politicians. They rule by cajoling, deal-making and moving power around. That can lead to a form of consensus, but there are positive ways to reach the same thing. I'm not talking about forced compromise, but reaching an agreement to move forward, regardless of prior position or thought.

NOUN: consensus

  1. An opinion or position reached by a group as a whole: "Among political women . . . there is a clear consensus about the problems women candidates have traditionally faced" (Wendy Kaminer). 
  2. General agreement or accord: government by consensus.
You don't see anything about majority of opinion or position, just an agreement to move on. Often a plurality of agreement is as much as we can expect and need from a group of varied stakeholders with a likewise myriad base of experience. And just as important, is consensus can be changed at a later time without serious loss of face or power position, since after all it was just a consent of the group at a point in time, given the information at hand.

But design, isn't that a different thing? Isn't design something that has tangible outcomes and results we can measure success from? Sure it is, but we've been enduring bad design since the dawn of man. It's what trial and error is all about. And this gets back to the first common attribute, "it takes another problem solution to understand the direction toward a possible solution". Now the inferred element is that the earlier effort had some element of failure. Now I'm a proponent of failing fast and often, just to find out what does and does not work. I say better to get it out or the way instead of burying it and having to deal with the failure later, for I've found your sins will surely find you out, eventually. So consensus and being willing to fail are two partners that work well together, if we are all willing to take those mental positions.

Design is becoming more and more complex. Most of you all know that the simpler something looks the more is being done for you and the harder it is to make something that is really difficult look and feel simple. In our world of instant gratification, everyone has the expectation that something will be easy, simple and intuitive. If we can't figure it out without instructions, then it's too hard and we don't want to put in that much effort. We would rather have a tool that is easy to use as long as we can live with the results. Results don't have to be perfect, just acceptable. But on the other hand we really do wish for perfection and would like to have it if we could get it.

Take for instance the clothes washer that is connected to the internet and will call the manufacturer if the spin speed isn't fast enough, or if the fill cycle didn't work just right. Those are two functional elements in the washer that the manufacturer could trigger the washer to run a diagnostic routine to find potential reasons for their existence and potentially have some adjustment in the controls circuits to reestablish the proper set points so the fill cycle works correctly and the spin cycle gets the clothes spun to the correct dryness. If those solutions did not work they could send a warranty repair notice to the local repair company and send you a notice via sms messaging, email or phone call, or all three, that someone was going to come and check out your new washer.

The simple sensors, logic controllers and communication devices are the easy part of this scenario, it's the people part that is difficult, but you can see the problem is far more complex now than even five years ago when we simply bought a washer and used it until it demonstrated some kind of serious problem. We called the repairman on our own. Yet we see the design requirements are far more complex in today's world of possibilities. There is a direct correlation between the greater number of design requirements and the greater possibility of failure, yet we still expect the washer to be simple to operate, convenient to use and efficient in it's consumption of water and energy and the results of consistently clean clothes the results of our efforts.

In the above scenario not only were the mechanical, electrical and industrial designers expected to deliver a great product, but a new element of coordinating a customer service and warranty repair program were also part of the solution. Three very different kinds of organizations, but necessary for the design requirements of this washer. It is a wicked web we weave and one with many sticky points along the way to say the least. Today product manufacturers are expected to deliver not only on the technological side, but the soft side as well. It's not something manufacturers are well known for doing well. But that is the world consumers have been told is possible and that is what they are demanding with their purchasing power and their social media power.

Do pity the poor designer who has to figure out who and how these problems will be solved. Fortunately for some product manufacturers they have awakened to the possibility of an entire continuum of people to solve these problems is much better than a single person or team from a singular viewpoint. More on the other points later...... Continue to part two

1 comment:

  1. I've been invited to look at a number of my ideas in light of the healthcare delivery system. From my vantage point as a designer and business consultant and past CIO of a small insurance company I'll be rewriting / amending the Design Age posts as I see how healthcare measures up to the needs of their stakeholders. I trust you will find the new series helpful as you continue to work through some of these knotty problems many of us deal with on a daily basis.