Spasmodic Design

Earlier today Christopher Alexander and his book Notes on the Synthesis of Form taught me my new favorite word: spasmodic.

Which lead to my new favorite made-up phrase: spasmodic design.

To extend on Christopher’s thought, spasmodic design is designing something that, when introduced, causes your audience to struggle to find a new sense of equilibrium with your product. Something that forces them to reorient their perspective and workflows around your new changes.

It is just the fast reaction to single failures, complemented by resistance to all other changes, which allows the process to make a series of minor adjustments instead of spasmodic global ones: it is able to adjust subsystem by subsystem, so that the process of adjustment is faster than the rate at which the culture changes; equilibrium is certain to re-establish whenever slight disturbances occur; and the forms are not simply well-fitted to their cultures, but in active equilibrium with them.

With large and invasive (spasmodic) changes the temporary sensation of feeling disoriented needs to fully dissipate before you can understand if the design change was truly beneficial. It can often take a while for this new behavior to fully shake out.

However, for the fit to occur in practice, one vital condition must be satisfied. It must have time to happen. The process must be able to achieve its equilibrium before the next culture change upsets it again. It must actually have time to reach its equilibrium every time it is disturbed — or if we see the process as continuous rather than intermittent, the adjustments of forms must proceed more quickly than the drift of culture context. Unless this condition is fulfilled the system can never produce well-fitting forms, for the equilibrium of the adaptation will not be sustained.

This isn’t a cry for help to slow down. It’s allowing your audience to find equilibrium with previous changes before making more.

For example, a few different concurrent projects I was contributing to while working at HubSpot consisted of building better filtering tools for large lists of items, better navigational tools around those items, a new folder system for those items, and advanced search tools for those items. I wasn’t nervous about any of the problems being poorly identified. I was nervous about the user being able to gracefully absorb all the changes over such a short period of time. I was also nervous about how difficult it would be to determine if we did a good job on the filtering tools if the user was also adapting to a new folder system.

It felt spasmodic.

You can easily speculate that every one of those ideas are inevitable. Over a long enough period of time, they will all become a part of the product. I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can build a well-fitting product under these circumstances. You can’t build well-fitting filtering tools until you understand how people are using the folder system. And vice versa.

Also, there’s a pain threshold of the user that may have been temporarily satisfied by any one of those ideas individually. We didn’t need a “complete” solution, just enough to get past the current pain threshold. The other projects could have been postponed for weeks or months while equilibrium is reestablished, freeing up time for other work.

To quote Christopher one more time, we need a healthy understanding of the context around the problem to properly address it.

It is based on the idea that every design problem begins with an effort to achieve fitness between two entities: the form in question and its context. The form is the solution to the problem; the context defines the problem. In other words, when we speak of design, the real object of discussion is not the form alone, but the ensemble comprising the form and its context.

Large design changes require time to allow people to find their new equilibrium. When that point of equilibrium is reestablished you can explore the new context around a problem. Only then are you likely to find a well-fitting solution.

As you can see from the quotes, Notes on the Synthesis of Form can be a challenging book to read. It’s definitely worth the extra effort. Every chapter is blowing my mind. You should read it.