Designerly Thinking

Tim Brown from IDEO wrote an interesting article around this time last summer about designerly thinking that resounds with the Indiana University’s human computer interaction design program. The article talks about designerly thinking, defining it as thinking systematically. It’s not enough to have a brilliant idea, you have to place that idea in a system so people will adopt it. For example, the light bulb is “just a parlor trick” without the system in place to make it indispensable for everyday life.

He covers the designer’s personality profile, how design thinking happens, and how companies can incorporate design thinking into their processes.

Interested in reading the article? Click here for a PDF, or visit the article live.

Joyful Design, or, On Apple Products

I was raised to be a Windows fan; it was the only system people take seriously and where the “real work” happens. I believed this, in full, up until three weeks ago.

What happened three weeks ago? I began my summer internship, where I am expected to work on a MacBook (brand new!). A Mighty Mouse and a keyboard were provided. Just opening the boxes for these products had me oohing… the cardboard was so smooth! This was definitely one of those instances where Apple created a user experience through remarkable details. The smells, the feel, the way it was visually packaged… See Emily’s post on her love of the Apple packaging for more explanation.

Now to the little things that suggest I might defect to Apple Lovers Anonymous. I had the laptop on, and I plugged in the keyboard. It worked instantly. I turned to my co-workers in astonishment. “You mean I don’t have to restart for the keyboard to register?” Now, I realize this is true for all or many USB keyboards, but I’ve had bad luck in the past. Same thing happened with the mouse, which, by the way, plugged into the keyboard, so I didn’t have to sacrifice a USB port on the laptop. And get this, my Wacom Graphire 4 tablet worked instantly! Sure, I had to download a driver so that it configured to the screen size, but other than that, I didn’t have to worry about drivers, restarting, random error dialogs…

But the most remarkable detail so far, for me at least, is the log in dialog during start up. The screen is very simple. It lists all the users registered on the machine, and you can select your username and type in your password. One morning, when my fingers were fumbling, I typed my password incorrectly.

Lo and behold! On a Windows machine, the screen would have churned, trying to process this incorrect password, allowing me to think I was logging in when in actuality, I was about to have a little dialog box beep at me with a message that my password was incorrect. On the MacBook, the process was simple: the dialog box shook back and forth, the password text field cleared, and I was allowed to try again.

I mean it when I say I giggled, imagining the MacBook was shaking its head at me (perhaps sighing, even). I shrugged, tried my password again, and logged in properly this time.

This is what I mean about joyful design. Technically, I made an error and typed my password incorrectly. Rather than making me feel at fault, or stupid, the clever designers at Apple subtly told me I made a mistake, but hey, no worries, just try again. Remarkable details. Simple. Clean. I’m loving it.

Capture the Remarkable Details

Though I’m a computer engineer studying to be an interaction designer, and should feel more comfortable with technology than anyone else (it seems), I often feel overwhelmed and frustrated. The great thing about technology is that almost any information I could care and/or want to know is at my fingertips. The worst thing about technology is the very same. It can easily turn into noise-information.

How many hours have I wasted on Wikipedia learning information I didn’t actually need to know? How many hours have you wasted?

This noise problem, I feel, has similarities with the act or craft of writing in an explicit manner*. When writing a scene in a chapter, you could, if you wanted to, write every single detail. Your reason for doing this? To immerse the reader: they will have to feel like they are there with the characters if they can sense every detail about the surroundings, clothing, scent, etc. Right? Wrong. If you were to do this, it would be noise. Your readers would skip over that paragraph because it was fluff-laden information. Where is the meaning? As an example, why tell the reader the exact color of the clouds if…

  1. The character isn’t looking at the clouds in the first place,
  2. Even if the character was looking at the clouds, they probably don’t care, and
  3. The reader probably cares even less?

This is my problem with technology. Life as we know it today is riddled with the noise of knowing every detail about everything. We have lost the poetry of life. And maybe I’m a romantic, but I miss that poetry. I want my life to be poetic in the way of meaningful interactions and experiences.

Modern poetry is more often than not the written word at its most succinct, sparkling form. It takes the remarkable details of a moment and arranges them in a way that often conveys more meaning than an entire chapter describing the same thing.

So this is my question: can we do the same thing with technology? Can we create human-computer interactions in a way that emphasize the poetry of life? Can we create technological objects that capture the remarkable details that make something meaningful?

However we do this, I feel it must tie back to creating “an experience,” as described by Dewey, and it’s a challenge I look forward to undertaking.

*I received an undergraduate minor in English, and am taking a creative writing course for graduate credit this semester.

See my sketchnotes from the Discussion Club session that inspired this post.


via jacobbijani.

Oh, how completely true and brilliant that above image is. Makes me wonder whether this is a good or bad thing. How much does the “user” need to know? Is it okay for them to think the computer is this magical box that may have an odd quirk or two?

More importantly, why do I miss the days of seeing the computer as said magical box? Funny how such a feeling seems nostalgic.

Just what is UX?

Ario from LiveJournal recently wrote an excellent explanation about user experience that I just had to link. I’ve copied some of it below for posterity’s sake.

1. What is “user experience” (aka “UX”)?

In a broad sense, this field examines both improving existing products and the creation of new ones that solve some sort of human problem or fulfill a desire. More often than not, this mainly involves the design of web sites, web applications, and client software (programs that run on a computing device vs the web).

This narrow definition reflects the field as its practiced in techy areas like Seattle and Silicon Valley, but on a greater scale, “UX” means a whole lot more.

If you really boil it down, anyone who prepares anything for someone else to consume is a UX designer… so by this definition, we are all UX designers. Telling someone a story: that’s UX… DJs stringing together songs in a pleasurable way: that’s UX… the sushi chef who prepares an omakase style diner: definitely UX…. filmmaking = UX. No matter what the particular example, these all share the common thread of understanding an audience and satisfying some kind of desire (to be informed, entertained, etc).

2. Where do “user experience designers” work?

Going by the definition above, someone with this printed on their business card can follow any of the following routes:

A. working for a big corporation like Apple, Google, IBM, Oracle, Amazon, etc
B. working for a startup or small company like Twitter
C. working as a freelancer that goes from project to project with various clients (like my friend Sally)
D. working for a design firm that also has multiple clients (Adaptive Path & ZAAZ are popular ones)

A person in this role will spend their time thinking about how to make a given experience easier to understand and generally more appealing, hopefully even pleasurable!

Continue reading

Uncovering the Possibility

Cross-posted at the IDP08 Blue Blog. This is in response to Marty’s post.

This semester has, without a doubt, changed me.  At the beginning, I was worried about the structure, or apparent lack thereof. I came from an engineering background and was scared of the more creative freedom that this program boasted. A number of us came from technical backgrounds, and were surprised, to say the least, about the lack of emphasis on technical feasibility (re: Ben, Cheng, and others’ comments on Marty’s post).

I think I might be the only one who relished this change. As much as I “like” to program, and know that I’m good at it, I specifically came to this program because I felt it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want computing for computing’s sake. This is not to discount the work I’ve done before. I am proud of the fact that I survived a computer engineering program, and don’t like this rumor that’s going around about designers not having to worry about technical feasibility.

Continue reading


Cross-posted to the IDP08 Blue Blog.

I’m going to go ahead and “nerd-alert” myself on this post.

My fellow programmers:

Do you remember the first time you tried to learn recursion? And how you thought your professor, while teaching you “the magic of recursion,” was secretly laughing at you behind doors because you weren’t getting how recursion worked? The professor could tell you the results, the structure, and even why it worked, but you still didn’t get it.

How many times did you ask your professor to explain recursion just one more time, hoping it would “click”?

But you had an assignment, and it was due soon, so you started coding. It wasn’t like you had any idea what was going on, or that you thought it would work. You just did it. And eventually, through trial and error (most likely), it worked. But it still didn’t make sense.

And the saddest part was that recursion could make complete sense, but that didn’t mean you knew how to code the solution to the problem. Yet, the first time you wrote recursive code that validated and worked, you felt like a true programmer.

So this is where I am right now. I am back in my undergrad, trying to understand recursion for the first time. I’m frustrated, determined, and annoyed. I’m supposed to be “smarter” than this, but this isn’t a case of being smart, is it?

This is a case of trusting those who are wiser than us. It’s a case of trusting that they aren’t laughing at us behind doors, because once upon a time, they had the exact same problem. And if they do laugh, they aren’t laughing at us, but at the memory of their own frustration and panic. Well, some of them might be laughing at us, you never know, really.

Once upon a time, I trusted my professors, I did what they said, I got a recursive function to work, and I (eventually) understood recursion.

Recursion, my friends. Once you’ve experienced it, you can never go back. I suspect it might be the same for design.