Terms and Terminology #1

This is a short article I wrote a few months ago, but never published.

This week I’ve had another occasion to revisit the thinking in my (as yet) unfinished trio of articles on design process. I’m designing a method, or series of design tools, for a large telecoms company to embed in their teams across multiple European countries. The intent is to identify service touch points which are broken, which could be better, or which could exist.

I’ve chosen very carefully to say that I’m designing a method. To my mind design, or certainly the flavour of semi-structured, participatory service design which I’m enjoying developing has a series of words which mean different things to different people. I’d like to outline a glossary of the terms I use, as I use them today:

Design Activity: An activity is a single action which helps you move forwards. It is a simple technique, way of thinking or format which takes you one step on. A card-sort, or a brainstorm would come under an activity. An activity helps you generate more information, or reformat information. In itself a design activity doesn’t help you create meaning.

Design Tool: A tool helps you generate, collate and synthesise information to create meaning. It’s a series of linked activities generally.

Design Method: A method is a series of linked tools, it is context specific and will deliver a reliable result as long as the context in which it is used is the same. It’s inflexible, but reliable.

Design Process: A process comes in two parts; The ideology (or opinion, or practice…) which provides a sense of forward motion and expresses the structure and flow of a project, and a suite of activities and tools. These are bespoke to each design practitioner who has built up, borrowed, stolen and created them over their career. These are then selected, crushed, bent, folded, expanded and rewritten constantly as a context of the process twists and changes. The same activity or tool might be applied a thousand times, but will vary wildly as it is customised for its context.

An analogy for this is: Activity = Letter, Tool = Word, Method = Sentence and Process = Poetry.

This would be a great project as a traditional consultancy brief. The company, however, wants to enable their own staff to seek out these opportunities over time, rather than employ a design consultancy to go through multiple companies over multiple countries and come up with a list which will rapidly become out of date.

Developing a method, rather than applying a process, seems like a great idea. We plan to work with the people across the countries to embed a method which they can then take forwards and use over the coming months and years (if it makes it to years perhaps we will have even influenced the company culture…). The outcome will make sure that all members of the company, not just designers or engineers, but also customer service staff (who knows the user better than anyone else), sales staff, management… essentially everyone who drives this large multinational are always looking forwards. They all have a forum to raise customers issues, and a forum to make changes.

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