The Free Method — Expanding UX methods to Include Everything?

Paul Feyerabend. Philosopher of science.

In my short time studying and practicing user experience, I sometimes find myself in the middle of a UX project feeling stunted. Where I was once brimming with ideas, I am now scraping the barrel trying to push one into the MVP. I remind myself that this is how it works, the process necessary in building a solution. There needs to be a deliverable, an outcome, a single working representation of all my research and testing. Still, the question lingers. Am I honing in on the right solution in all this? or is the right solution being lost somewhere along the way?

I think about the process a UX designer takes to reach the solution, the process of design thinking. On a base level, we all empathize, define, ideate, prototype, ..etc, but what exactly does it mean to use design thinking in a given context. Turns out the answer varies. Design thinking exists in different forms in different places, However, despite how you begin or end the process, the methods you use to progress it along the way are mostly consistent. UX methods constitute a long list of exercises a designer can employ to understand aspects of his/her project. If you want to establish a target user, you can build a persona. If you want to synthesize your research, you can run an affinity diagram. The entire UX process runs through and is guided by its methods. They become the designer’s tools in defining problems and building solutions.

The methods and procedure a UX designer follows in a project.

Clearly, the success of a UX project puts a lot of weight on the success of the UX methods being used. If those methods are in some way flawed, then the process will be flawed as well. Additionally, a UX project depends on the success a designer has in using those methods. As a designer, you need to know what method to use, when and where it’s appropriate to use it, and how to interpret its results correctly. So, if I want some clarity about the quality of my solutions, the questions I need to ask are these:

Are UX methods capable of leading me to the best solutions?

Am I choosing the right methods to find the best solutions?

Evaluating UX Methods

As far as tools go, UX methods are specifically built to tackle design problems. Each method is used to supply a specific answer in the process and I can’t help but think this ‘specific’ quality to them has both a positive and a negative aspect. It’s positive in that it makes their practice deliberate and useful, but it’s negative in that it seems to create a window of possibility, constraining the answers you can get from a method to answers it’s supposed to produce. When I am wondering if my solution is the solution, part of it is wondering if there is some piece of the problem I still don’t have.

Philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, speaks to this directly. He claims all methodologies carry implicit biases towards one idea or another, which in turn guides discovery down a predefined path. In his book, Against Method, Feyerabend critiques the scientific community on its over-dependence to its methodology. The methods that operate in modern science are a series of observations, experiments, and established facts and the world can be understood through their use. However, Feyerabend contends that those methods either contain or assert assumptions about the world. For example, we know a certain table is brown because we believe our sight sees it truly or that the results of an experiment tell us this because we believe the third law of thermodynamics says that. Examples like these shape what we believe is and is not possible in the world and we can take them at face value because science has derived extremely credible reasons to.

Against Method, published in 1975

Of course, we know that what is and is not possible has changed over time. Physics after Newton is completely different than Physics after Einstein. The history of science is chock full of complete and total changes like this. We should be mindful of the possibility that it can happen again. Feyerabend points out the difficulty there. If progress in science happens through fundamental change, then it would be incorrect to use predefined methods to bring about that change. The current understandings/uses of the methods in physics are likely ill-equipped to operate under a future physics yet to be discovered. The methods of today are insufficient to understand the science of tomorrow.

When it comes to UX methods, I’ve often felt the limitations that Feyerabend describes. Just like scientific methods, UX methods have a prescriptive quality already attached to them. They indicate when, where, and how to use them as well as what to expect out of them. They are accurate and functional and have great practical value, but inherently, prescribing their use limits the range of possible solutions. If we only use UX methods, then the only solutions that are possible are the ones that can be derived from those methods. It’s possible the right solution exists somewhere outside of that purview.

If I take Feyerabend’s position then, it would seem that the methods of UX, despite being very effective, are not capable of producing the best solutions on their own. In fact, Feyerabend says that, in all cases, there isn’t one foolproof method to systematize the process of discovery. All methods carry assumptions that predetermine how you proceed.

Forging New Methods

With his arguments, Feyerabend has wiped the slate clean. You can’t follow any method without being susceptible to their assumptions. The question now is, how is all of this supposed to work? In terms of design, how do I build great solutions without a method? Feyerabend’s answer is this. Because a single method narrows the solutions possible, we must then widen our process to include completely separate sets of methods. Something that you can rub against your own, until, like a sort of metallurgy, a new solution is extracted from the interaction.

Now — how can we possibly examine something we are using all the time? How can we analyze the terms in which we habitually express our most simple and straightforward observations, and reveal their presuppositions? How can we discover the kind of world we presuppose when proceeding as we do?
The answer is clear: we cannot discover it from the inside. We need an external standard of criticism, we need a set of alternative assumptions or, as these assumptions will be quite general, constituting, as it were, an entire alternative world, we need a dreamworld in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit.

Feyerabend wants us to be free of any methodology because all methodologies carry their own set of assumptions in their use. He wants us to look outside, bring new methods into our work, examine them through that lens, and forges something new and useful from the ideas found there. It is, at first, a dreamworld because we must believe in the possibility of our ideas before we can bring them together in a rational and demonstrable way. You have to follow a sort of intuition to assemble great solutions. Without a clear method, I suppose this is the only option available. Feyerabend uses examples of how great thinkers in history followed this intuition to develop their ideas. Galileo, Pythagoras, Newton, and Einstein are all such people but to segue back to design, Steve Jobs’ path to designing the first Macintosh aligns quite nicely:

Calligraphy methodology + Design methodology

Jobs brought the methodologies of calligraphy and design into his process and extracted something great, the apple aesthetic that ended up changing the industry. It is important to note that design methods were not abandoned, only supplemented. He used calligraphy to expand upon his solution for the Macintosh experience. Who knows how many iterations it would have taken Jobs to get the Macintosh to this place if he had used UX methods alone. The best solutions come from taking advantage of the disparate, and even more so, from allowing yourself to pursue that.

After following my questions and Feyerabend’s arguments, I’ve got to give UX methods some credit. Through all this consideration, I can see that they aren’t perfect but they’re very very good. A good designer will be able to mitigate their faults to great success. Feyerabend’s pluralistic methodology, as it is called, seems very interesting and I’m sure it’ll be on my mind during future projects. It also seems impossible to implement in a week to week, day to day basis. The Steve Jobs example is cool and all, but 10 years passed before he could apply the calligraphy methods he learned to Macintosh design. Still, I think there is a lesson that can be taken away from it. Keep learning. Stay inquisitive about everything around you. Put yourself in odd situations. Become inspired by something and when the time comes, insert what you’ve learned into your process.

If you’re still stuck, I’ve found success by taking a walk, forgetting about what my next step should be, and letting my instincts guide me. We all have unique perspectives to offer, follow them.

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