We Are Systematic
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We Are Systematic

Searching for a unified theory

To understand the universe, we have two theories: quantum mechanics and general relativity. Both produce great work, but they don’t work together, at all. This sounds like many organisations I’ve worked in. Physicists are searching for a unified theory of the universe, maybe there’s room for a unified theory of design?

This is the fourth in a series of posts using quantum physics as an extended metaphor for product development. You can read the first post here, the second post here and the third post here. I should caveat by saying I don’t understand quantum mechanics: no-one does. But I do find it fascinating and find it to be a wonderfully compelling and surprisingly comprehensive analogy, so why not?

A tale of two theories

When it comes to understanding the universe we inhabit, there are two big theories. Both are elegant, testable and great predictors of how life, the universe and everything behaves. On a blackboard at least.

General relativity comes from great stock — Albert Einstein no less. You’ve heard of him.

The theory of relativity is all about gravity: how it stretches and folds the fabric of spacetime on mind-boggling scales. It’s called ‘relativity’ because it describes how concepts we previously thought of as ‘fixed’ like time are actually relative to the gravitational context.

An example is time dilation: time slows down the faster you travel. If you were to leave Earth and do a quick lap of the solar system at the speed of light, you would return to find yourself in Earth’s future, despite it feeling to you like very little time had passed. Creepy, no?

Relatively also predicts that objects travelling close to the speed of light also increase in mass. As a younger nerd thinking about this I would picture spaceships expanding like balloons. As an older nerd, I am led to believe that when we say ‘mass’ we’re really referring to condensed energy. So perhaps my mental image would be more accurate if the spaceship was glowing continuously brighter and emitting an increasing hum as it approached the speed of light.

All of this is to say, if you’re interested in objects the size of planets and supernovae, forces as powerful as gravity and waves as fast as light, relativity is your theory. In short, it works great for the very very big.

Quantum mechanics is our other great theory and the subject of this short series of blogs. Coming into focus in the 1920s, thanks to clever people such as Erwin Schrödinger (I’ve talked about him before, see part 1), quantum theory is perfect at describing the very very small: like the behaviour of electrons.

But whilst relativity and quantum mechanics are both good theories, reliably predicting behaviour in their own areas (big or small), they don’t work together. They aren’t compatible. There is no plugin to convert quantum mathematics into general relativity.

Both theories give nonsensical results when you try and unite them. Try using quantum theory to explain the movement of planets, or general relativity to explain the very small and it won’t work.

Is this a problem? Isn’t it a question of selecting the right tool for the job? Like using a microscope for the very small and swapping for a telescope to survey the very large?

Well, it’s only a problem if you’re interested in mapping how our universe works. If we’re to truly understand how this crazy place operates, we need a unified theory. A more perfect understanding of the universe needs a more perfect theory.

Let’s get to the metaphor

Why is this relevant? My quantum metaphor this time is about research and design. Two mature disciplines with ethos, frameworks and toolkits that work perfectly for their own spheres of influence.

Organisations approach the relationship between research and design differently. Some have separate teams: the research team feed the designers with insights, the design team send back questions and prototypes for validation. The teams can coexist very well but are fundamentally separate entities in a synchronous orbit.

Alternatively, organizations may create unified product teams, with designers and researchers working to tackle the same problems. This may make sense operationally, but when you zoom out, we still have ‘designers’ and ‘researchers’ with their own skillsets and domains of influence.

But wouldn’t a more perfect setup be to unite these concepts in a single theory? This was the challenge We Are Systematic set ourselves when putting our internal framework together. The set of principles and guidelines that define at a strategic level who we are as an agency, what we do, how we do it and why.

Is there a more perfect way to approach this dynamic?

I will grant you this question is largely philosophical, but because it goes to the heart of UX design, it felt like an important concept to have an opinion on at the very least.

We knew we wanted to embrace iterative and continuous design. Rather than working on a simple binary of problem to the solution (with research somewhere in the middle), we wanted to think of design as an ongoing process where we could react to changing contexts and continually improve both our understanding and the products we create.

As a startup, it's easy to emulate or target the structures of a larger organisation. Early org charts referred to ‘research’ and ‘design’ verticals that we would steadily scale and expand. Or matrix organisations with cross-functional teams reporting to both functional heads-of and project managers.

But deep inside this felt wrong: why build inevitable silos and bureaucracy into our firmware when we don’t need to? Why assume that scale inevitably means separation?

Spooky action at a distance

One of the weirdest quantum phenomena is entanglement. Subatomic particles can become entangled when they get close to each other. Like ghostly twins in scary films, suddenly they share a freaky bond and seem to ‘know’ what the other particle is doing, even if they are taken very far away from each other.

For example, if you have two imaginary particles, A and B, that when you observe them are either red or blue. They flash away, red or blue, happily on to their own schedule. Only when you observe them do they fix in one colour or the other.

But then you bring A and B together and suddenly they become entangled. Now, if you observe particle A and it fixes red, then particle B will always fix blue, and vice versa. Even if you take A and B to opposite ends of the universe, they will always fix their colours depending on what the other particle is doing.

This clearly unsettled Einstein, who called it ‘spooky action at a distance’. Spooky indeed.

Design and research are the same. If you’re doing it properly at least, they are entangled, regardless of your organisational structure. What happens in one affects outcomes in the other.

One of the things we had repeatedly said when starting We Are Systematic is that design and research belong together. We call this evidence-based design, and it’s our core product.

Then the penny dropped. Maybe we’ve been thinking about this all wrong. What if design and research are like quarks?

Not the sound a duck makes

In quantum physics, there is an elementary particle known as a quark. Quarks group together to form atomic particles like protons and neutrons, much in the same way atoms group together to form molecules.

Why am I talking about quarks? Well, quarks come in six different types which are referred to as flavours. (The flavours are up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm. I don’t know why.) Each flavour has different behaviours and properties, but they are all quarks.

Our realisation was this: design and research are not different things, they are different flavours of the same elementary pursuit.

Design and research are really just ‘design’.

Again, I can be accused of being largely philosophical in this distinction, which I will accept. It’s true that this is largely a mindset rather than a practical change. However, there is a key benefit to thinking this way. For the avoidance of doubt, it’s the avoidance of debt.

Staying debt-free

There are several kinds of debt that can plague product teams, and none of them are good. Even the most disciplined team has to spend at least a little time paying down debt between projects to stave off bankruptcy.

Design debt accrues as a result of pushing design ahead of developers’ ability to build. Have you ever returned to a design file after a project and counted how many elements never made it into code? That’s design debt.

Research debt can go one of two ways: the curse of knowledge or unvalidated hypotheses. In the former case, the researchers sit on a mountain of data, hoping it’s still valid by the time the team catch up. In the second, the researchers can’t validate design decisions fast enough to feed into the process, and the team ends up proceeding blindly. Neither are good.

Operationally, project managers and strategists will recognise decision debt (an exponentially growing backlog of decisions to be implemented) and communication debt (information that spreads so slowly across teams its old news by the time it arrives).

A unified theory of design and research knocks down the silos once and for all by removing the entire concept of separation from the operating system. In this model, the distance between debtor and creditor reduces near to zero and debt accrues much more slowly and more manageably.

But how does this work in practice?

This will be my last essay in the quantum agency series (for a while at least) because I’d like to turn to more practical and less philosophical concepts. In an upcoming post, I’m looking forward to introducing our evidence-based design model properly.

But I have some strategic models that can help close this loop in the meantime.

A map

I’m sure you have roadmaps for your digital products (if you don’t let’s talk!). A roadmap is a strategic model that outlines what you need to do now, next and later to accomplish your objectives. More strategic than a backlog, but more practical than an OKR.

Your roadmap should contain not only features and activities but also questions. What unknowns do you need to make known, and in what order? What assumptions need to be validated? What beliefs challenged? Bringing questions and uncertainties alongside statements and solutions is one key part of how we start to think about a unified theory of research and design.

An effective roadmap ensures you’re always focussing on the SMIT (Single Most Important Thing). If you think about it, your SMIT is probably not a feature. It’s probably a question. Even if that question is ‘Will my idea work?’

A compass

A map gives you your location and all possible routes. In order to know the right direction (and if you’ll forgive me extending the metaphor), we need a compass.

(Our compass is three dimensional so perhaps a gyroscope is a better analogy, but I’ve started so I’ll finish.)

At the beginning of each project, cycle or sprint, your strategist needs to ask themselves, what is the simplest, most direct way to make progress towards the SMIT?

This could be progress in either of our flavours: design or research. Then, in each flavour we can pick a direction: upwards means invention: to new ideas and features, downwards is deeper into your current state, improvements and increased fidelity.

Design compass: which direction should you go next?

Do you sketch something up, put it in front of potential users and see what they make of it? Is that design or research? It’s both.

Do you interview a few potential users before you’ve even put pen to paper (or pixel) to get a better understanding of their needs? Is that research or design? It’s both.

What’s important is the fundamental process of improving the products we make, not the discipline. This should be the lens.

It’s a theory

Never one to under-extend a metaphor, in this post I’ve used the search for a unified theory of the universe that unites quantum physics and general relativity as a metaphor for breaking down divides between UX research and design specialisms.

As a metaphor for a grand unified theory, I like it. An approach that unites research and design by treating them as different flavours of fundamentally the same thing.

But like any theory it needs to be built on, challenged, thrown out and improved. And like any metaphor, it’s really just a rhetorical device. But I had fun with the narrative, I hope it sparked some interesting thoughts in the reading.

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We are a design agency specialising in evidence-based design. We help organisations to innovate new digital products and design fresh features.

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Ed Roberts

Ed Roberts

Head of Research & Analytics at We Are Systematic, an agency specialising in evidence-driven design.

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