Do we need more guides for design methods?

We need fewer how-tos and more value-focused discussions.

While writing my upcoming series of conversational UI and information architecture, I started re-reading a few books that have influenced me greatly over the last decade. One such book is Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander.

This is a book by an architect that ended up influencing the development of object-oriented programming. It crosses boundaries in the way that it thinks.

In UX, we’re taught step-by-step methodologies and told to create a very specific artifact from these methods. Methods that have been defined and refined by practitioners.

Need to identify and understand your stakeholders? Create a stakeholder map! Need to understand the linear progression of users and their actions? Create a user journey map! Want to design a new service experience? Look at some gaps in your service blueprint!

These methods are great. We all use them. They help us abstract complex interactions, people, and ideas into understandable and digestable information. That’s what we need as designers; Bring clarity to complexity.

Alexander’s book is roughly 130 pages of a step-by-step method of identifying and creating a pattern based (loosely) on mathematical reasoning. While writing the book, Alexander focused on this part, but ultimately in hindsight, realized the importance of the abstracted information as a way to communicate about the design problem.

In this book I presented the diagrams as the end results of a long process; I put the accent on the process, and gave the diagrams themselves only a few pages of discussion. But once the book was finished, and I began to explore the process which I had described, I found that the diagrams themselves had immense power, and that, in fact, most of the power of what I had written lay in the power of these diagrams. — Preface to the paperback edition (written 10 years after publishing)

Also in hindsight Alexander recognizes the importance of not just taking his methodology at face value.

No one will become a better designer by blindly following this method, or indeed by following any method blindly.

What we do as designers, he argues, is about bringing some kind of order or logic to our work. It is as much about convincing others of the importance of what we are doing as it is about understanding the current state.

A logical picture is easier to criticize than a vague picture since the assumptions it is based on are brought out into the open.

So I took this to heart. I realized I could give people a framework for doing something, but not a step by step process. And I’d focus a little more on the value of the artifact and not just the creation of it.

What do you think? Do you find guides helpful?

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