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December 07, 2004

Methods and Masters

An ongoing discussion between JJG and I concerns the value of methods in design practice. At Adaptive Path, our "classic" workshop provides two days of presentation and hands-on activities. I'm a believer in the value of such methods and teaching as a "rising tide that lifts all boats." JJG has been less convinced. In his ia/recon essay, he wrote "Research data and formalized methodologies don't guarantee better architectures. Better architects guarantee better architectures."

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Atul Gawande writes an excellent piece on the quality of medical practice. One would think that, considering the quality of tools and technology, the fast spread of information, and the ability of the physicians, practice would be fairly uniform across treatment centers. Treatment of cystic fibrosis has been closely watched for decades, and the results show a bell curve of quality -- some places do very well, most places are average, and a few are poor.

What the article mentions is that while the "best practices" in cystic fibrosis treatment have been widely disseminated, leading to average hospitals performing much better now than they did 10, 20, 40 years ago, those average hospitals are still average, and the best hospitals continue to far outpace them.

The reason? Driven, brilliant individuals who improvise, take risks, challenge conventional thinking, and are simply unwilling to settle for anything other than perfect.

In short, JJG and I are both right. The dissemination of successful methods does a lot to raise the average level. But the better practitioners will always far outpace the average.

Posted by peterme at December 7, 2004 05:43 AM


I think you’re missing a key point in the article, which was the emphasis on cut and dry comprehensive life expectancy data and how it was necessary to prevent the kind of cock-a-hoop self-congratulatory thinking (if not believing) that goes on in the medical field when relevant comparative measures are in short supply.

Never minding the fact that regression towards the mean in human endeavors probably doesn’t come as a shock to too many people born after 1886, I wonder how you would propose measuring how far afield better design practitioners are getting from the average, or even the poor for that matter? In fact, I think the article is pretty clear about the dangers of anointing the “better practitioners” without providing any sort of reasoned empirical evidence for doing so.

It seems to me that design is fraught with exactly the kind of squishy and infinitely variable (read subjective) comparative measures that make our beliefs about better and average spurious at best and inconsequential at worst (not to mention rarely falsifiable).

I don’t mean to say that reasonable people can’t believe there are better or worse information architectures or information architects, but I do mean to say that such beliefs in the realm of design are highly susceptible to the sort of supercilious group thinking that the article is addressing. After all, nobody’s daughter’s life is cut short by 20 years (let’s hope) when my online cd retailer falls a few facets short of providing me with the optimal user experience.

Measuring the existence of bad design by the cumulative effect of its consequences is tricky business. Cystic Fibrosis is a life threatening disease that garners the attention of a select (and comparatively small) group of vetted professionals whose work is endlessly and widely monitored and whose results are either happily or devastatingly apparent. The scale, context and consequences of CF have remained unchanged. In your work, they are ever changing and everyone is born with their very own license to design.

So as you and Jesse lap the design field slapping the bottoms of the vanquished and giving each other high fives (what imagery that conjures), how will we all come to agree on how fast you’re going and relative to whom?

Posted by: Sam Burns at December 10, 2004 11:16 PM