Design is murder

Inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Jules Maigret, I’ve come to see that design and detective work (the fictional and possibly even the non-fictional kind) share some illuminating common elements: piecing together clues from many small pieces of information; putting these pieces back together in different configurations, and finally finding the solution that fits — either by solving the mystery or creating a design that works.

Fictional, and even real, detection uses a particularly powerful conceptual framework:

Means, Motive, and Opportunity.

Restated as a series of questions, this framework can be applied with remarkable effectiveness to design problems:

Means: How can a person gain access to, and understand how to use, your product and service?

Motive: Why would a person use your product or service?

Opportunity: When can a person use your product or service? How does it fit into their lives?

Of course, there are two big differences. First, a mystery usually has only one right answer — a single killer or bank robber — yet design can offer many great (or terrible) solutions to the same problem. A second difference is that in detection each time the problem is similar (e.g. who committed the crime). Yet, in the design process, the designer has to define both the problem and the solution. Without the former, the latter makes no sense.

Like the detective, the designer has tactics they can use to define and solve the problem. As I’ve written before (“The “problem first” design process”), the process for defining a problem is very similar to designing a solution; once the problem has been clarified you can then move into design solution mode.

Following the detective’s framework, you can use a number of tactical design tools to solve a design mystery.

Means: How can a person gain access and understand how to use, your product and service?

In Form, Function, and Feel, I look at how prototyping allows you to examine the different ways in which end users will perceive and use your product or service.

“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise, your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” — Arthur Conan Doyle — Sherlock Holmes novel

Motive: Why would a person use your product or service?

In Design First, I articulate a different approach to research which uses design tools to uncover the key questions that need to be answered to make a successful product or service.

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” — Arthur Conan Doyle — Sherlock Holmes novel

Opportunity: When can a person use your product or service? How does it fit into their lives?

In Intent driven design I propose an approach to predicting your users’ intent and actions which allows you to anticipate and delight users with intuitive designs based on their needs.

See the value of imagination,” said Holmes. “It is the one quality which Gregory lacks. We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified.” — Arthur Conan Doyle — Sherlock Holmes novel

Detection and design share many similarities. When you begin, there are many questions and many assumptions are made. Yet, only by testing out your ideas can you hope to find a solution. In both cases, understanding human nature plays a vital role in coming to a solution; can you understand what motivates someone to commit a crime, or to use a service?

If the “means/motive/opportunity” framework is crucial in fictional (and even real) detection, in design it can crack the case of both defining the problem and developing solutions.

Thanks for reading! :) If you enjoyed it, hit that clap button below. It would mean a lot to me and it helps other people see the story.

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Kaushik Panchal

Kaushik Panchal

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Strategy & Design | Focus on understanding the problem; the answers will present themselves.| @buscada @thoughtspot | Prev @Apple @yahoo | kaushik-panchal.com