Demystifying Denouement: Solving the Gordian Knot

This literary term pops up often in the design world but is rarely understood and often overlooked. That said it might just be the best tool for good design.

Yuri Zaitsev
Apr 29, 2020 · 6 min read

The first striking thing about “denouement” is that it has three vowels in a row. That is a clue to its French origins. Which means that it is pronounced: deh-noo-mon.

Back in the 18th century French country side the word meant to unknot. Duchesses and Marquises would attend masked balls in artful galleries of well-to-do palaces. Baroque music would be twinkling in the background. At the end of the evening, the extravagantly dressed French elite would dénouer (unknot) their masks and reveal themselves to the rest of the court.

Masked Ball in the Hall of Mirrors — Nicholas Cochin, 1745

It was at the very end of the evening. Yet it was the most important. Who had Louis “The Beloved” XV been dancing with? Had he chosen wisely, or poorly? It was the moment of truth. Everything would be revealed.

Alright designers: I think we could learn a thing or two from 18th century French high society.

Let’s start with our most favorite human-centric, design thinking activity. The ethnographic interview. (We’ve published a bit about it before: and .)

Normally, here is how the interview works. Some of you may be very familiar with this:

You start with the introduction. One time I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacy about some of the technology she was comfortable with. Stacy is a white woman, in her early 80’s, who lives alone in Columbus. She is sadly a widow, but she is regularly visited by her several children and large handful of grand children. Her home is modest, but the grounds it sits on are immaculate. The kids and some gardeners help her take care of the gardens, the pond, and even a few apple trees. It’s become easier for her to eat the few things that she can grow than to travel to the store to buy them in her age. What does this have to do with any technology? Not much, but it paints a picture of Stacy. (Names and details have been changed for privacy).

As we chatted about her family, she took me on a tour of her home. This is how we built rapport. By the time we got to the kitchen, she offered some tea. I helped her to brew it. Finally we sat down to talk discuss why exactly I was there, sitting at her kitchen table.

We talked about everything. All of my questions were answered and then some. Some of what she talked about made sense. A lot of it didn’t. I came to see some of the world through her eyes. We had reached the climax of the interview.

However, that didn’t mean I understood how she thought. Why does she make certain choices? Why does she avoid others? She couldn’t tell me. She barely gets it either and she has never been to a therapist who could have told her.

Some billion years ago, Aristotle finally understood what makes a story “whole.” It’ll sound obvious but the secret was that stories that felt complete have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

One type of story, the comedy, begins with a hero or heroine, or both. Together they go on wacky adventures that inevitably gets to a situation where everything is upside-down, backwards, and twisted. Like a love triangle built around a web of lies.

Now the ending is when everything mysteriously unravels. The heroes have a reversal of their misfortune. In the end everything falls into place. The story is literally not complete without the denouement.

After the interview, Stacy and I went through the denouement together. We reflected. Together we did our best to unknot the string that held her mask in place. I wanted to know who I was dancing with.

With Stacy, the denouement didn’t last very long. But it was by far the most difficult part. I shared my half baked theories about her, and she corrected most of them. She came back with explanations. I countered with new tensions in her story that those made. Back and forth we created “Stacy: The User Persona” together.

I think in design there is a tendency to hold onto our ideas. Once we have gotten that little insight in an interview, we hurry to have the interview end. We rush to our laptops to eagerly type out the insight and stare at it on our screens in all it’s non-obvious glory. We completely miss out on the denouement.

What Stacy and I came up with was actually very interesting, and I wish I could tell you now. What I can tell you is that we began to blur the line separating what her home is and the technology she uses.

The denouement is really the goal of the interview. It draws out the subjects most authentic self. We are trying to unmask a core truth. The rest of the interview is typically full of stories that talk around this idea.

The problem that most people have, is that they don’t realize how interesting or profound they could be. The denouement is that little time at the end when we can say “I have never heard this before. Do you realize what you are implying?” You can share your theories, push back on what you have heard, and have Stacy analyze it right there with you. You go beyond seeing the world through her eyes. It’s your chance to get how she thinks.

The second most striking thing about denouement is that it pops up all over the place. For example, brainstorming. I have been in many and 99% of the time need to remind people that a brainstorm isn’t over when all the ideas have been written down.

The brainstorm is only over after the denouement. After the ideas, the group must reflect on the big picture. What are the big themes that stand out among the horde. What are the underlying truths that are unmasked? What principles could we extract?

Sometimes only a few ideas stick out. This reflection at the end is about figuring out why. An idea might actually be fascinating but not for the reasons you thought at first.

Theories and analysis

A designers profession is in denouement. We are constantly offered a metaphorical Gordian Knot. Problems that have no clear beginning, no clear end, and we have to make heads or tails out of it. Our best tool is denouement. Take the time to unknot the thing. Unmask the idea before the interviewee, in the brainstorm, whenever you think you are done.

A great designer can reveal new ideas in overlooked places. They can look at them. A designer is someone who figures out a way to make them approachable.

A designer unknots.

This is foreshadowing articles about advanced interviewing skills, using the clustering technique, writing design principles, and more. So stay tuned.


Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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