Want to Understand Design Forces?

Untangle design conversations into the forces bearing on the design, the solutions under consideration, and the fitness between the two.

I wrote some Tweets today about separating forces from solutions when you discuss design ideas.

A few people asked me to explain what forces are and to provide more detail on this. Here are some thoughts.

Think that you’re building a bridge.

There are facts about the world that you must accept in order to make a bridge that holds weight. These are the forces that act upon whatever bridge you build. You take the forces into account in your design so that your bridge stands.

Those physical forces are functional. They affect whether the thing works or not. There are also emotional and social forces. The bridge project may be perfectly engineered, but if the aesthetics aren’t appealing to a stakeholder, the project won’t be approved. Therefore you can consider the stakeholder’s demands on style as a force in the design task.

The leap to make in this metaphor is picturing what it means for your design to “stand” or to “hold weight.” We don’t have clear physical laws telling us whether our app will “bear the load” of our users’ behavior. The metaphor is useful because it encourages you to define things you believe to be true about the world outside the thing you’re building, and then treat those things as if they were physical laws.

It’s about better conversation.

If you’re building a bridge and your team doesn’t agree on the laws of physics, collaborating will be difficult. By agreeing on the forces that bear on the design, you can productively (and playfully) explore solutions and agree on how to evaluate them. This is just as true when you work on a problem alone.

When you’re not building a bridge, you need to come up with the “laws of physics” yourself. What will people do with the design, how will they stress it, where will they bend it? This falls under domain knowledge and life experience. You can express what you agree upon as forces on the design. For example, the to-do tracking feature will be different if the team agrees that users often need to reassign items. The kitchen design will be different if you assume the user cooks for four people or for fifty people.

Another analogy is the windmill. If you don’t know whether to face it toward the right or toward the left, you study where the wind blows. Similarly we answer questions about how to shape the design solution by inquiring into the forces that bear on it.

Whether you do user research, reflect on personal experience, or arbitrarily decide what the truth is, that’s up to you. The benefit to your design process comes from untangling the design conversation into three things: the forces bearing on the design, the solutions under consideration, and the fitness between these two.

(I gave a talk on this back in 2010: https://vimeo.com/10875362)

(PS. If you’re wondering how this relates to job-to-be-done theory, the JTBD tools are ways to find and define the primary forces. When you figure out what a person is trying to do and how they judge progress, you can treat that information as if it was physical law and then design against it. )