Sunday, April 13, 2014

Some Differences Between Thinkers and Doers

This morning I was reading the Wikipedia article on Design and was struck by the implications of a couple of it's assertions. The most interesting was the notion that there are two fundamental models of design, one called the Rational Model and the other the Action-Centric Model. The article describes and offers a critique of each model;

Rational Model

Designers attempt to optimize around known constraints and objectives.

The process is planned and has a discrete sequence of stages;


Designers do not work this way – extensive empirical evidence has demonstrated that designers do not act as the rational model suggests.

Unrealistic assumptions – goals are often unknown when a design project begins, and the requirements and constraints continue to change.

I would add that the Wiki is playing fast and loose with definitions here and that it would be more accurate to say that Engineers primarily attempt to optimize around known constraints and objectives.

Action-Centric Model

Designers use creativity and emotion to generate options.

The design process has a variety of stages which are recursive, parallel and entangled.


Less intuitive than The Rational Model

Setting aside the oversimplifications of both descriptions, there is one point which I think needs emphasis. With regard to the Rational Model the author says:

"Designers do not work this way – extensive empirical evidence has demonstrated that designers do not act as the rational model suggests."

The magnitude of this should not be underestimated. (Nigel Cross' latest book Design Thinking looks at this in detail.)

This presents an interesting question; What possible value is there in a model which does not describe the widely observed behavior? Isn't that a bit like having laws of physics which don't describe the behavior of matter?

I recall running into this issue at one of my more culturally traditional employers. My supervisor wanted me to provide a description of the design process. Fortunately, I had a copy of Product Design and Development, by Ulrich and Eppinger, which contained exactly the type of process flow he was looking for:

As I prepared my report, I recall thinking; That is a really good description of all the steps required to design a good product. Everyone is included, finance, marketing, legal, manufacturing, facilities, service, they're all there. At the same time, I also recall being very aware that some of the most innovative work I've ever done came from a process that looked very little like this beautiful chart.

So, what is going on here? Let's dig a little deeper into the descriptions of these two models.

The Rational Model is about thinking. The Action-Centric Model is about doing. Why the difference? What might bias someone towards preferring or avoiding thinking or doing in trying to create something? I think the answer to that can be found in understanding the motivation of the manager who asked me for a description of the product design process.

Whenever we set out to do something which we've never done before - or confront an ambiguous situation - one of the issues we need to consider the level of risk we face if we fail. One method to mitigate risk is to try to plan for it. In business, we add a bit of extra money to the budget, or time to the schedule. If we are planning a trip, we may seek out an alternate route. This type of forward thinking, call it forecasting, contingency planning or risk management, is a way to reduce your fear of failure. In effect, you plan in a bit of a buffer, so that you can afford to fail a little. This works well in situations where there are few unknowns and the cost of failure is low. However the solutions are bounded by what you can imagine in advance.

The experiential (Action-Centric) approach doesn't suffer from this imagination-boundary problem, but presents another, possibly more difficult, issue, particularly for people who have a low tolerance for risk/high fear of failure; In the absence of perfect knowledge, unexpected outcomes are highly probable and some unexpected outcomes are metaphorically, or actually, fatal.

I'm guessing that there is a high correlation between creativity and high tolerance for risk, but also a high correlation between high tolerance for risk and failure.

High tolerance for risk ~ Creativity ~ Failure

Correlated with this is the idea that "Designers" differ from "Engineers" both in their different levels of comfort with risk and their methods in dealing with it. Both are forward looking, but the engineer is more of a forward thinker and the designer is more of a forward doer.

This sign hangs prominently over the common area in the building at Stanford, right outside their Maker Space;

Another take away from this may be to not let "analysts" write the articles on "design".

So, I leave you with this thought;

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