What’s all this, then?

I came into this program thinking I had a pretty good understanding of what design is. Design isn’t just the way a product or interface looks, of course, but how it works. Design isn’t just about efficiency or economy of motion, but the way an object makes a user feel when using it.

Design is user-centered. Design should remove pain points, but even this goal sets the bar too low. Design shouldn’t simply remove pain, but create joy. Design is about your users, not you. Design should induce a sense of flow. Your product, whatever it may be, should make your users feel like they’re kicking ass.

Good design is deceptively simple. It’s not done when there is nothing more you can add, but when there is nothing more you can take away. Be ruthless. Kill your darlings. Get rid of everything that is not absolutely necessary, and then remove some more. Prune, prune, prune. If you’re not crying, you’re not cutting deep enough.

Omit needless words. Eliminate verbiage.

Break of Day

These were all concepts that I took to be self-evident as I entered this program. I had already taken down heavy draughts of the design Kool-Aid and I was thirsty for more, so imagine my surprise when I was given nothing. I was frustrated when our initial projects centered around running focus groups, conducting ethnographic research, and building cultural probes. When it finally came time to “design” something, like an updated version of Google Reader, we were told to spend most of our time not actually designing, but finding our core argument. When it came time for evaluation, the professor cared more about our “core” than about the innovative concepts we developed. Honestly, we might as well have designed nothing, and simply gone up in front of the class to present some vaporous idea.

My annoyance with the program extended beyond class, too. I volunteered to help redesign the HCI/d website, and even after a month working on the project we still haven’t designed anything. We interviewed students and had a series of agonizing meetings where we defined the goals of the site, and only now have we started sketching anything that resembles a website. Like, the goal of the site is pretty obvious, right? To recruit prospective students. I could have figured that out in, like, five seconds on the can. Why did this require a month’s worth of meetings?

Why did this require a month’s worth of meetings?

For me, it all started coalescing during the IDEO presentation last Friday, when Tom Stat began dispelling the myth of the lone creative genius. He shared a number of innovative design ideas that completely upended their respective markets, including Amazon, Tivo and Netflix. These ideas did not fall fully-formed out of the brain of a genius. Amazon did not burst, clad in armor and brandishing steel, from the forehead of Zeus. Indeed, even if Jeff Bezos was entirely and independently responsible for the original concept, there is no doubt that Amazon underwent numerous revisions, expansions and contractions on its long road from idea to launch.

The point is, “genius” as a generative tool is unreliable, unpredictable, and incredibly risky. The design process, however, is a way that sharp individuals can get together as a team, and come up with highly innovative and destabilizing results. Good design is not an accident. Design is deliberate, conscious, and carries with it values and judgements. Unfortunately for us, design is also a lot of work. I think we’ve all figured this out by now.

And this, this is what I have since discovered as the fatal flaw in my understanding of design. I already knew that design was more than veneer, that it had to be woven into every part of the development of a product. I assumed this knowledge would be my tightly-wrapped cloak, that would shield me from the bitter storm promised by Marty and the second-years. I was already on board, and I figured I would be immune to the destruction.

Boy was I wrong.

When the semester began I was surprised that we started with all this talk about research and observation and insight and reflection. I figured we were just establishing the fundamentals, and that it all would blow over soon and we would finally begin designing things.

As weeks became months, however, and we were still talking about cores and processes, I became incredibly frustrated. I felt dead inside. I was ready to leave the program, this stupid program that has design in its name, where you don’t even design anything. Two months in, not a breath has been wasted on interface design patterns, or user interface elements, or Fitt’s Law, or anything else that one thinks would be covered in a human-computer interaction design program. In fact, one of our courses this semester is an exercise in socratic philosophy, more than anything else.

So where is the design?

All this nonsense, I thought. The sooner we could get this procedural garbage over and done with, the sooner we could get to the good stuff. The sooner we could start designing.

Just recently it all began falling into place in my head. I realized that my conceptualization of design, while perhaps decently sophisticated, was terribly narrow in scope, and included only about the final ten percent of the process. I was familiar with the principles that govern the construction of a design once an idea has been established, but I knew nothing of how to reach that idea.

All this nonsense we have been doing, it is far from nonsense. This is design. Indeed, 90 percent of the design process is informing your final design argument, and yet I was only familiar with that final ten percent. Without a good design strategy, you’ll certainly be able to rush into a design and start building something sooner, but it’s ultimately going to be a weak design with a weak argument. Design is a marathon, and in my hubris I thought I could take a taxi to within 500 feet of the finish line and still claim a fair victory.

This program is obsessed with the process, and not the final product, because the process will ultimately inform everything we will ever design. Ever. If we do not understand these fundamentals, if we have not been immersed in the design process, and if we are not able to abstract these procedures and apply them in different contexts, the world owes us nothing.

I sincerely believe that this program addresses one of the most important things being undertaken in the world right now. This is a complete reconceptualization of what it means to create anything, from products to systems to policies. If humans are to exist in their current capacity for another hundred years, we need to begin informing our actions with deliberate design-based thinking.

Everything is a design problem.

We are learning a mental and procedural framework that will guide the values we hold, and the design decisions we make, for the rest of our lives. That is why this is hard, and that is why this is important.