Hegelian dialectic and the design toolkit: The value of contrarianism in ideation

Where do great designs come from?

Today’s human-centered designer uses a range of tools for defining problems and designing solutions. The process most UXers I know follow a tried and true method of product design, which looks to validate assumptions before going to market.

This methodology, usually associated with agile development and design, is a best-practice that’s seen across most design disciplines, from interface design, to fashion, to architecture. Boiled down, the model tends to look something like this: research, ideate, prototype, test, iterate.

Ideation is that magical part of the process where elegant and revolutionary solutions come from. But when inspiration falls short, what tools and techniques are reliable for propelling innovation? How can a design team reliably drive ideation?

Hegelian dialectic leverages contrarian thinking to surface new, thoughtful solutions and can help a design team navigate its way out of the doldrums of the imagination.

What is Hegelian dialectic and its value?

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel introduced the dialectical method, which is summarized as follows by the Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions:

(1) a beginning proposition called a thesis, (2) a negation of that thesis called the antithesis, and (3) a synthesis whereby the two conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new proposition.

Here’s an example:

  • Thesis: “People need to go to a store to see and try on shoes before committing to buy.”
  • Antithesis: “People will buy shoes without seeing them or trying them on.”
  • Synthesis: Develop a retail platform that allows customers to buy and return items without the need of a store.

Congratulations! Herr Hegel has helped you invent Zappos.

The wisdom of crowds is often right. Most contrarian thought is wrong. Yet contrarianism provides the essential antithesis ingredient in dialectical thought that will drive change and create undiscovered value. When contrarian thought is completely untrue, it’s nevertheless useful for driving iterative thinking. When correct, it can be of gargantuan, unprecedented value.

Uber, Amazon, Tesla, and similarly disruptive companies result from contrarian “antithesis” stances that, when taken to market, have proved correct (and wildly profitable).

The value of contrarianism in design

The design team at Cohero Health encourages productive contrarianism to drive dialectical thinking and innovative design. We work in an area of health technology that is relatively unmapped, and inspiration for many features in our software cannot be found in existing design patterns.

Synthesizing thesis and antithesis statements help us move fast to innovate and iterate.

Hegelian synthesis as a design exercise

If your team is working on a new feature, say a new home screen for a native app, try the following exercise as a modified design studio.

  1. Write down the problem you’re looking to design for, and what user testing questions would be useful for evaluating the success of a design with regard to the posed question.
  2. Assign one designer (or design team) to create a design based on an agreed upon, conventional approach.
  3. Assign another designer (or team) to design a solution based on the antithesis of the first team’s design.
  4. User test both designs, using the agreed upon questions, with a service like usabilityhub.com
  5. Evaluate the results to synthesize the design and iterate a new solution.

Thanks for reading.