Design Strat
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Design Strat

The Culture for Interdisciplinary Work

In every design project, I discovered three parties who are always present: human expert, technology expert, and domain expert. A good design process enables interdisciplinary work. Based on my experience in multidisciplinary collaborations for interdisciplinary works, Design makes a difference by introducing three core values at once: Synthesis, Collaborative, and Iterative.

1. The Actors of Design

Human experts are the ones extracting stories from humans whom we’re designing for. On another level, they also extract stories from humans involved in the collaboration or the domain activities. In an organization, human experts may need to learn the interaction among teams. In business, human experts may need to support business or marketing activities.

Technology experts are the ones realizing the design output. On another level, they are part of the domain activities. In an organization, technology experts may need to support the organizational operations. In business, technology experts may need to support business or marketing activities.

The two experts have a clear distinction. When we want to get human insights, we consult the human experts because they’re equipped with many ways to extract stories. Psychologists: when we need to discover mind-behavior connection (because design is about behavior of using). Anthropologists: when we have to understand (not judge) a culturally different people (behavior is influenced by cultural values). Sociologists: when we need to understand people in society (behavior varies with social institutions).

We consult the technology experts when we want to understand the feasibility of realizing the design output. They understand the interactions among components in the technology, and know which decision breaks which component. Some of them are specialists, and some of them are generalists. The specialists help us understand the possibilities of design, and the generalists help us understand the boundaries and priorities. Sometimes, we deal with different technology types, e.g. digital, chemical, biology, mechanical, so we have to involve multiple teams of technology.

Domain experts are the ones we tend to forget. Especially in the world of business, we focus only on business domain, followed by its support system e.g. finance, accounting, marketing, supply-chain, partnership. It’s the reason we often see the following diagram of three:


In some industries, the third design actors are as strong as the business domain, e.g. finance, food/restaurant, health/biomedical, legal/regulatory, hospitality/travel, and the technology itself. Some of these experts are also experts in human or technology. Such industries may hire people with double domain expertise like tech and health, tech and finance, health and legal.

2. The Play of Design

Synthesis is the main value of design, because it represents creating. Without synthesis, we cannot envision paths toward solutions. In a design project, all multidisciplinary parties must be willing to exchange perspectives in order to contribute to the interdisciplinary solution. The divergent-convergent process in synthesis means we start with listening to all parties (divergent) before we facilitate a way to digest ideas (convergent) and reconstruct them into a new idea.

Collaborative is the derivative of synthesis. Before human-centered design is practiced, designers didn’t really embrace this value. They performed sensemaking in isolation, without interdisciplinary work. With collaborative synthesis, multiple parties are required to perform the idea assessment at the same time, so that the result is a shared qualitative decision instead of mere voting/bucketing. In addition, this increases the acceptance of the decision among involved parties.

Iterative is another main value of design, because it represents the nature of design as a discipline of action. In a design process, we act on what’s possible next, and then repeat the action, instead of trying to act on the far end goal from the beginning. This way, the introduction to paths toward solutions is gradual, e.g. first within the project team (all three actors visited), then among decision makers, then released as public beta, before finally it’s released as the final solution.

3.a. When the Show Fails

After we understand the three actors and the three values of design, now we can identify what can break the process.


Synthesis fails if actors don’t respect each other enough to be willing to share daring ideas. Actors may merely be unwilling to listen to each other, forgetting that they need to be divergent first (listen first) before getting convergent (deciding on what is important later).

Example: domain experts not willing to listen to other experts, believing that the other domain knowledge is not contributing to the solution. They’re not aware that listening to all parties is important no matter how small their contributions are. Such an interdisciplinary process makes us a better master of the context, which leads us to find opportunities among the obvious and the understated.

This highlights the need for the dialogic trait of a designer. In this process, the designer needs to facilitate sharing and listening and combining ideas through dialogues (not one sided).


Collaborative fails if actors don’t have time for the project, where they forget “we’re in this together”. They forget that no single person owns an interdisciplinary work, because the success is determined by how well-involved are the multidisciplinary contributors.

Example: human experts clinging onto their methods as if they’re the most expert in understanding human, unaware that they can interpret the research results better with a collaborative session than just by the researcher’s coding system. This “theoretical, methodological” phenomenon has given research a bad name in business.

This highlights the need for the critical trait of a designer. In this process, the designer needs to critically review the process and approach multiple contributors who are not as involved as the rest of the team.


Iterative fails if actors are perfectionist, where they forgot that ideas don’t have to be bright at the first pass. They forget that with smaller iteration of ideas shared with each other, it’s easier to eventually produce truly interdisciplinary ideas.

Example: technology experts not trusting the process, e.g. expecting exploratory qualitative research to give numbers, while the team still needs to discover what to measure first. The qualitative is actually a useful step before we know what to measure, so we can inform the quantitative and eventually come up with strong numbers.

This highlights the need for the creative trait of a designer. The designer needs to facilitate the team from not going convergent too fast before obtaining all the project context and multidisciplinary contributions. Perfectionism kills creativity.

3.b. When the Show Succeeds

Recently, IDEO commented on “design thinking is bullshit” discussions that have been going on in the past year. What they discovered from organizations that successfully practice design thinking are the following:

  1. Organization culture. The team members trust each other in the safety of sharing ideas, not highly judgmental or rewarding the smartest person in the room (hierarchical).
  2. Organization culture. Despite being highly efficient or intellectual, the team members embrace playfulness. This condition allows people to be more creative.
  3. Practicality. The team doesn’t follow a rigid methodology of design thinking, such as the 5 steps (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test). They pick which steps are needed in each situation.

We could tell that those findings are really relevant to the core values of design. Synthesis thrives in the safety of sharing ideas, collaborative thrives with playfulness, iterative thrives with balancing methodology.

Now we know what to expect from a design project. We need to prepare the actors with the three values and probably some rehearsal time before the play, which is a whole other work to do. The show must go on!

PS: the three traits of a designer (dialogic, critical, creative) comes from Enzio Manzini’s book “Design, When Everybody Designs”, which is an introduction to design for social innovation. Social innovation is difficult, because usually it deals with wicked problem. With the spirit of inclusive design (design for non-mainstream population), if we aim for solving the difficult problems we will be able to handle the easy ones. If we aim to be a designer among the mountains we will be able to design among the hills.

If you want to read more about Design, Innovation, and Human Behavior please follow Design Strat instead of qonita’s profile :)



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