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May 30, 2005

The Dark Side of Design Thinking

While there is much good in design thinking, I think we have to not get carried away about designers' power. In my experience, I've seen many negative qualities of design thinking, qualities that have proven a detriment on projects and to the profession as a whole.

Overbearing control
Dirk Knemeyer exposes the dark essence of design thinking when stating, in the comments section of an article he wrote, "we need to begin controlling the environments that our work is being experienced in."

Long ago, designers attempted to "control" the Web by determining, with pixel precision, presentation, leading to massive .GIFs and JPGs with excessive download times. The designer believed that HE knew how things should look, and did everything in his power to make it happen. And while that was going on, sites exhibiting what would be concerned poor design (Yahoo, Amazon, eBay) took over -- because such overbearing control is not only unwarranted, but is detrimental to quality experiences.

Designers often hate the idea that their designs most live on in the hands of the users. They obsess over every detail as they plot a world of what should be. Stewart Brand wrote a whole book with this as its theme -- How Buildings Learn deals a lot with overbearing signature architects and their determination of what the experience should be, and the struggle of the people in those buildings to adapt the experience to their actual needs.

This leads me to another negative aspect of design thinking...

Arrogance/condescension towards users
While designers have been attempting to corner the market on empathy, the truth is that that shift is a remarkably recent one. When I began working with design firms (with Studio Archetype, in 1996), designers never attempted to appreciate the user perspective and provide the appropriate service. They instead designed what THEY liked, and assumed that users would appreciate their brilliance.

Oftentimes, the user, with their idiosyncratic needs and wants, is seen as an obstacle by the designer seeking truth and beauty. Or that the user isn't clever enough to understand what they want, so they should shut up and appreciate what the designer, the expert, is giving them.

Sadly, user-centered designers are perhaps only marginally better about this. While at least they are attempting to understand and assist the user in their goals, they often do so from a similarly arrogant, and expert perch. I wrote about this in my post "Pity the Poor User," which reviews a book that calls into question the view of users as victims of their own circumstances, in need of saving by the brilliant user-centered designer.

Weakness for styling
Designers like the shiny-shiny. That's often why they got into design.

Look at any interactive design annual, anything judged by a panel of designers, and you will see a stupefying weakness for styling. It doesn't matter that after using any of the winners for 2 minutes, you're pretty much done (if you could figure out how to use it in the first place).

Until designers fully, truly, and deeply realize that style, while necessary, is perhaps the least important aspect of successful interactive design, "design thinking" will be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

This is hardly complete (I hope others will add more in the comments). And, to be upfront, I suffer from every one of these in one way or another. The point is to have that self-awareness in order to appreciate when the bad habits are kicking in, and deal with them head on.

Posted by peterme at May 30, 2005 09:18 PM


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