by Alex Wright

Six weeks ago, as I was packing the boys off to their first days at elementary school, I embarked on a new school journey of my own as a candidate in Carnegie-Mellon University’s Doctorate of Design (D.Des) program, a low-residency program intended for working design professionals to redirect their practice through a program of applied academic research.

Why am I doing this? For the past twenty-odd years, I’ve worked in various permutations as a UX designer, information architect, writer, researcher, and manager. As my career has evolved, so too has the the professional landscape: from the early, anything-goes era of the early web to today’s highly professionalized world of digital product design.

Like most Internet workers in the early/mid-1990s, I learned primarily by doing: toying with HTML, viewing source code, tinkering with whatever seemed to be working elsewhere, and getting to know other folks—mostly manqués liberal arts types like myself—who were stumbling into the emerging world of web page-building. Equipped with little formal training (other than a library science degree and a bit of undergraduate noodling with Intermedia), I found myself cast into a role as a designer of sorts, charged with managing the fledgling web site.

In that capacity I worked with a wide range of folks from different fields: software developers, corporate design managers, marketing and PR people, human factors engineers, and assorted managerial types, absorbing whatever I could from these largely orthogonal perspectives. And I was scarcely alone. It was the early, heady days of the web, and we were all making it up as we went. But gradually a community of practice started to emerge, and by the late 1990s a few of us had started to call whatever it was we were doing User Experience Design.

As I’ve since moved through a series of professional incarnations with different organizations—design studios, software companies, a couple of ill-fated startups, an old-media circus and now Etsy—I’ve felt a growing desire to reflect more deeply on this work, looking beyond the how’s and why’s of UX design and research that still occupy most of my time in the office, to think more deeply about the social, political, and historical context in which that work happens.

Over the past three years, my work with Etsy has also deepened my interest in exploring an approach to design that embraces progressive values and a commitment to social change. At the risk of sounding like a shill for my employer, Etsy’s efforts to use business as a force for positive social change— with all the tensions and contradictions that entails — seems like a petri dish that’s ripe for further examination.

So why Carnegie-Mellon? Under the guidance of Terry Irwin and Cameron Tonkinwise, CMU’s design department is playing a leading role in framing the nascent field of Transition Design — an evolving approach to design focused on fostering long-term social change through a “whole systems” approach that goes beyond the often limiting perspectives of user-centered design or even service design. When I learned that the school was planning to offer a low-residency doctoral program geared for working professionals, I felt that I’d finally found a home where my professional and academic interests might finally converge.

Over the next three years, I’m looking forward to pursuing this path in the company of fellow students Jacquelyn Brioux and Dave Wolfenden, under the guidance of our faculty advisor (and longtime friend) Molly Steenson.

As part of this undertaking, I’m planning to publish periodic snapshots of my work in progress, exploring some potential applications of this work through the lens of my day job.

So, here goes:

What do we mean by “design”?

Our first foray as a group has taken us through some foundational reading on definitions of design and designers, and exploring the evolution of professional work in the twentieth century.

We began the journey with Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner, an analysis of the role that improvisation and felt knowledge play in shaping professional work. Schön argues that while the rise of the professional class owes much to the emergence of scientific management techniques during the industrial revolution, the nineteenth century ideal of “Technical Rationality”—a point of view that envisioned professions as fields of practice built atop bodies of theoretical knowledge (like science or medicine)—is deeply flawed. Schön explores an alternative framing of practice that he dubs “Knowledge-in-Action,” in which professionals build on theoretical knowledge but ultimately refine their work through direct experience, experimentation, and intuition.

Schön’s framing of Technical Rationality vs. Knowledge-in-Action feels deeply relevant to the current state of interaction design , as we see an increasingly data-driven (technically rational) mode of design coming into conflict with more intuitive and empathic modes of understanding and doing (knowledge in action).

Building on the Schön reading, we moved on through two seminal Bryan Lawson books, How Designers Think and What Designers Know. These books raise central questions about the nature of contemporary design practice. What do we mean by “design,” exactly? Who qualifies as a “designer”? And how do designers know what they claim to know?

Lawson has set an ambitious goal in trying to propose a generalized theory of design, acknowledging the hubris of such an undertaking given “the extent to which designers have common processes and the extent to which these might vary both between domains and between individuals.”

In trying to propose a generalized set of design principles, Lawson points to the necessity of both “systematic and chaotic thinking,” and of the need for “both imaginative thought and mechanical calculation” in producing effective products (echoing Schön’s distinction between Technical Rationality and Knowledge-in-Action).

In today’s increasingly data-driven product design world, I found Schön’s framing of these poles quite useful. The growth of A/B and multivariate testing and other “mechanistic” approaches to product design—as powerful and useful as those techniques can be—often threatens to run counter to the more integrative, holistic and human-centered approach to design that many designers and researchers tend to espouse (cf. Google’s infamous 41 shades of blue experiment).

Yet as any working product designer knows, experimentation is very much a part of the practice at most native Internet companies. And let’s be careful of setting up false dichotomies between “data” and design thinking. Data analysis often provides an invaluable lens for evaluating the effectiveness of design solutions. The question is not about resisting data through some kind of quixotic appeal to humanism; a better question might ask how we could integrate the benefits of data analysis with the more empathic, Knowledge-in-Actions style approaches that a practiced designer can bring to bear through a combination of empathy and a felt sense of things.

In a world of multi-disciplinary product teams, who exactly qualifies as a “designer”? Despite the existence of a professional class of so-called designers, design is also an activity that almost all of us practice in our daily lives (e.g., arranging our living rooms, or even just arranging our desktops). If we accept Lawson’s definition of design as “a matter of selection and combination of predetermined items,” then what doesn’t constitute “design”?

Even in a professionalized context, the design of digital products is almost always an interdisciplinary activity, in which design decisions routinely get made by non-”designers” like product managers, engineers and product marketers. Given the polymorphous role designers play in this kind of setting, Lawson’s critique of the traditional studio-driven design education model feels particularly pertinent. Echoing Schön’s view of Knowledge-in-Action, Lawson argues that designers learn mostly by doing. What, then, is the role of a professional design education?

I’ve encountered this challenge in my own experience teaching MFA students at the School of Visual Arts’ Interaction Design program, where student projects sometimes suffered from a lack of interaction with people who could plausibly portray other roles on teams. Designers have an easier time collaborating with other designers than with other disciplines — like engineers — who are typically in short supply in a design studio setting.

“One of the perennial problems here is that so much of the real professional world is very difficult to replicate in the college or university…. It is often difficult therefore for design students to develop a process which enables them to relate appropriately to the other stakeholders in design,” he writes. “Thus, the educational studio can easily become a place of fantasy removed from the needs of the real world in which the students will work when they graduate.” While studio-based design programs may equip students with tactical execution skills, a focus on the production of artifacts fails to put sufficient emphasis on the process itself.

For digital products, a central component of that process involves developing an understanding of users, and the incorporation of techniques drawn from psychology and the social sciences. Yet, as Lawson points out, “designers are no more social scientists than they are artists or technologists.”

In What Designers Know, Lawson asserts that “design problems are most usually solved without ever having been completely stated.” His argument that problems and solutions often co-emerge seems like an apt characterization of interdisciplinary UX design, a field of practice in which “no one person or body is in possession of the whole problem description.”

For example: a product manager might view a successful project as one that launches on time and on budget, a researcher might consider whether user needs have really been met, while a product marketer would look more through the lens of branding and communication. Given these competing demands, it seems the best one could ever hope for would be a compromised solution to partially defined problem.

Here Lawson invoke’s Goel’s protocols of “problem structuring” vs. “problem solving”—a modal activity involving overlapping phases for design, refinement and detailing. This strikes me as closely aligned with the double diamond process proposed by the British Design Council and recently refined in Dan Nessler’s recent post, in which project definition (“designing the right thing”) and design execution (“designing things right”) are broken into distinct phases marked by exploratory research and design steps in each phase.

Here George Polya’s How To Solve It seems pertinent, insofar as it invites us to take a more open-ended approach to problem definition, by going beyond an analysis of the immediate problem at hand to consider other, related problems. He also points to the challenge of finding related problems that are sufficiently different to yield useful comparisons. Instead of focusing on the current problem at hand, he advocates focusing on the “Unknown,” and looking for other problems that could be linked to the present one through generalization, specialization or analogy. This orthogonal approach to problem-solving feels deeply useful, inviting us to consider new ways of approaching problems and generating hypotheses through inference rather than deductive (and often reductive) approaches based purely on data analysis.

How, then, could a program of applied design research help us advance current practices in UX design? How might we move beyond the goal- and task- orientation of traditional UX methods to model more complex, multi-dimensional considerations spanning more complex ecosystems? Over the coming weeks I’ll be looking more deeply into those questions through the lens of Transition Design, and exploring the role of posture, mindset and temperament in shaping design outcomes.

More to come on all of this soon. For now, back to the books.

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