Radical Synthesis

Musings on the Unexpected

Typhoon Haiyan
November 12, 2013

On Wicked Problems

A few weeks ago after stumbling onto an event during a Google search, I found myself attending a  free symposium at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design on “Wicked Problems.” I was pretty excited about going as I’m more and more interested in working on design problems  with social and environmental impact.

My understanding of the idea had simply arisen out of being in the design space and from a cursory glance at Jon Koklo’s Wicked Problems Worth Solving. I had no historical grounding in the origin or evolution of the model but an awareness of its popularity as a way to frame today’s complex environmental and social problems. For me it was simply part of the lexicon of contemporary design.  I mean design thinking, wicked problems and user-centered design as far as I knew grew up out of Silicon Valley, IDEO and Stanford’s Dschool over the last 15 years or so, right?

As usual I blame my lack of knowledge on the fact that I didn’t go to design school, however after chatting with colleagues who did go the formal academic route it’s evident that I’m not the only one not in the know. And that’s not to say we can’t derive value from the tools and methods without historical grounding but it gives the model greater depth and power when we understand the context of its development.

Well it turns out, IDEO and the Dschool have done an amazing job at branding and popularizing ideas and methods some of whose origins date back first to Ulm than Berkeley in the seventies. I know some of you are shaking your head at my ignorance but secretly a few of you are leaning in closer because you didn’t know either and where afraid to ask!

So I spent the day learning about Horst Rittel and  Melvin Webber, both professors in the urban planning department at UC Berkeley who developed the theory defining wicked problems.

Below is a list of the 10 characteristics of wicked problems (Wikipedia).

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e.: Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).”

There was some debate at the symposium if tame problems (those with true or false outcome as one attribute) truly existed or if all problems are wicked. My perspective is that all problems are ultimately wicked if you’re willing to go deep enough. Solve a simple “fast fashion” ecommerce flow problem but scratch the surface of the business model and you’re looking at horrendous working conditions and a tragic factory fire in Bangladesh. It’s all connected in a big tangled mess.

The next logical thought for me from this realization was also echoed at the symposium, in that all design is politics. Choosing what you give your time and energy to is a political act. This paradigm really resonates for me and is one of the main reasons I love consulting as it allows me to filter the projects I engage with through my values.

Other interesting ideas that struck me from the day included:

  •  Design as argument or rhetoric
  • Wicked problems have resolutions but not absolute solutions
  • Language as a design tool/prototyping medium (from Terry Winograd)
  • Innovation happens when people learn skills outside their discipline, be an amateur (From Eric Paulos)

Overall the day left me energized and excited to apply thinking around wicked problems to my current focus, healthcare, as well as with a long list of topics to explore further and of coursing  fantasizing once again about the return to academia for a PhD. Sigh…

Image Typhone Haiyan – AP Photo

October 24, 2013

Experience Design: The Metamorphosis

How do we as experience designers explain what we do? This question seems persistent… I remember a few IxDA conferences back (my first) it seemed that session after session focused on trying to define the practice while this week in San Francisco we have “What the hell is experience design anyway? An evening with Kevin Farnham of Method” and I still struggle to explain to my 80-year-old mother exactly what it is I do.

Cocktail parties that aren’t industry specific present another problem when faced with the eternal “what do you do” question. I usually resort to a simple “I’m a designer” and if more specifics are required I’ll go with “I design software” which seems to be a clear concrete thing that is easily understood. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really communicate the breath of UX practice or its value but it does allow me to peacefully sip my cocktail without answering questions about the costs of building small websites!

Layered over this ongoing quest for a good one liner is the need to position experience design and communicate our value to potential clients. I left my agency job a couple of years back and I’ve been reluctant to begin the task of truly rebranding myself. I’ve needed time away from the very tactical work of getting things done as a design director to develop a perspective on the practice.

Last week in conversation with a jury consultant I once again found myself trying to explain what it is I do and believe I finally started to uncover a way into the conversation that feels both authentic for me and big enough to communicate the value. I began by describing my role as that of a translator. My job is to translate technology; I make technology “speak human.” It seemed like a good starting point but in retrospect it still seems too tactical and focused directly on software while we bring much more to the table that simply better software experiences.

Later that week I had the opportunity to guest lecture a SF city college so I thought I’d test drive my new description on the UX class. I started by asking the students what their definitions were. I was especially curious since I didn’t learn UX design in a formal educational setting. I ended up with a good solid range of answers the focused mostly on the process and artifacts, which made perfect sense from a group learning a range of new tools. What I didn’t hear was a clean inspiring high level view on the value of design process so after some discussion I jumped in with my new pitch.

And in that moment another missing piece appeared, I guess sometimes we really do talk to think. Yes, we are translators but we’re also interpreters and more importantly mediators. Our role is also to mediate between business requirements, user needs, research insights and technological constraints while uncovering future opportunities and defining strategic solutions. I got a lot of head nodding and note-taking on that one so I considered it pretty successful.

And here’s the next part because sometimes we need to write to think. We’re more the interpreters and mediators, we’re also facilitators and alchemists. There’s a bit of weaving straw into gold or transmuting one substance into another, encouraging the caterpillar to become the butterfly. We also transform raw materials into experiences that deliver delight and human connection.

Not quite the cocktail party perfect one liner but getting closer.

Image courtesy of M.C. Escher

MTHFR Mutation - Courtesy of http://mthfr.net/mthfr-mutations-and-the-conditions-they-cause/2011/09/07/
October 10, 2013

The UI of Nature

A couple of weeks back I attended a workshop at the Cooper Parlor, on the UI of Nature, facilitated by Zak Brazen and Wyatt Starosta. Think biomimicry and Janine Benyus, designers looking to nature’s way as a model and source of inspiration. It’s a path that the sustainable design world has been on for some time and there are lots to offer in the way of insight and inspiration for experience designers from complex workflows to microinteractions. Zak and Wyatt did a great job at sharing examples from nature and getting us thinking about how they could relate to technology.

I have to say however the notion that struck me immediately was the framework that left “us” on the outside looking in. We human beings as all-powerful makers with dominion over the world have managed to get ourselves into a pretty good mess. I hear echoes of Descartes and the infamous mind vs. body split, another model I’m not a big advocate of.

We can unpack this human vs. nature dualism through an entire history of science, philosophy and religion but regardless it doesn’t appear to be working out so well for us. The deep ecologists started calling us out on this over 30 years ago but we’re still anchored in the human as separate from nature paradigm. It’s surprising given how clear the failure of this strategy is; global warming, hunger, and water resource management issues to name just a few of the wicked problems that we’re confronted with.

If however, we lead from the premise that we humans are just another part of the planetary system it allows us to look at our role as designers from a different angle. This really hit home for me, as we looked at the ways the “natural” world evolves. Change can occur through a variety of processes including mutation, migration, genetic drift, and natural selection. My little moment of insight was the idea that we “designing humans” are simply enacting algorithms that introduce change into the system. We believe in our agency as makers yet the impulse to design is programmed into us. Our inputs can be viewed as mutations that through natural selection are carried forward to lay the foundation for the next generation of iteration.

To the degree we can view ‘design acts’ as a form of evolutionary biology that when successful alters the system, the question then returns to the idea of human agency and where our behavior falls on the spectrum. If we are somewhere in the middle of the involuntary vs. autonomous spectrum, then we have the opportunity to harness the momentum of our biology while simultaneously infusing these actions with our ethics and our values.

“Outside” potentially resolves us of our responsibility and I think it’s where my discomfort lay. Our actions are not consequence free but a continual feedback loop affecting everything around us. I just want to make sure that doesn’t get lost in the conversation.

Still from the flim "pina" by Wim Wenders
September 19, 2013

Kinesthics of Design

Dance, dance… otherwise we are lost – Pina Bausch

I’ve been sitting in this meeting for a long time now. Our client has just finished describing a complex problem and is looking toward me with great anticipation. Clearly she is waiting for a pearl to appear in all its completed perfection. If only I could deliver, instead I have a long list of questions whose answers generally lead to another long list of questions, each answer revealing another level of potential complexity to be considered, and my head begins to spin. Great, thanks I say, this has been very helpful and I’d like to go away now and think about all this for a bit.

If it’s a long enough meeting at some point I’ll walk down the hall and find a restroom. This may seem trivial but it’s actually the key.

I need to move to think.

It’s often during that brief stroll that a solution begins to take shape. I can walk back into the meeting and at a minimum return with a starting point.

I’m a kinesthic learner, I assimilate and synthesize in motion. It’s big muscle movements but it’s also drawing, and pushing pixels. I feel things out as they begin to take shape and organize. I travel around a problem space, explore, stumble down blind alleys and then backtrack on a path toward solutions.

I’ve had diverse types of movement training in my life and it’s allowed me to develop physical discipline along with a trusted non-verbal knowledge. It’s also left me curious as to how dance and choreography might support experience design. Observing the current landscape accelerate toward more embodied technologies I recognize we need a process to map complex trajectories into a combined physical/emotional/digital space.

In the UX community we rely on wireframes but I wonder if it’s enough. Dance practice uses a form documentation, Labanotation, which outlines the part of the body, its direction, and the intensity and duration of a movement to document choreography. I can see UX practitioners needing a language similar to this that overlays wireframes to describe a richer set of human/computer interactions.

Dance also has the profound power to invoke empathy in the audience. We feel intensely the momentum, arc and flight of the performer mirrored in our own bodies as we observe.  We know their emotional experience through this relationship.  It seems like the perfect moment to integrate this form of physical communication into our practices toward the end of more embodied and expressive experiences.

Ok, time to move.

LabWriter Software

Pina – the film


August 8, 2013

Synthesis Spotting: Literature Meets Architecture

Columbia Professor Matteo Pericoli has creative writing students select a story and team up with architecture students to create 3d models that articulate the narrative symbolically.

“Once the creative writing students have an idea for their structures, they team up with architecture students to construct 3-D models. This moment always has an element of magic: two students from very different disciplines coming together, now sharing a common language, knowing exactly where to meet, and why. They discuss spatial relationships, repetition, reflection, sequence, transparency, tension, pacing, chronology and so forth. Any architectural question is answered from a literary point of view; any literary issue is addressed by a spatial idea.”

This combining of the unique lexicons of practice is a powerful tool to open up our thinking as we analyze experience and allows us to surface new attributes to consider as we design new ones. The process is an amazing example of cross-discipline fertilization resulting in a new model, literature as form in space or a kind of synesthetic narrative.

Check out the full article in the New York Times.

Photo: Courtesy of the New York Times
Model based on “The Falls” by George Saunders
Created by Javier Fuentes + Lorenzo Villaggi

August 6, 2013

Finding Form

We are all sculptors of space, time, energy and intention.

How do we discover the shape of an experience? How do we define a singular path from the chaos of infinite possibilities?

It’s difficult to articulate how we find our way but we know when we’re in the current.

Experience design and sculpture both share the task of uncovering. A form exists in the void waiting to be revealed by identifying its essence.

We explore the problem space and start carving in where our energy is drawn. We define the rhythm, shape, color, and sound.  We try different combinations. We build up and take away. We use fiery tools and quiet centering.

Success, when we craft a gesture entirely unique to its circumstance in a form critical but minimal in its presence. We barely break the space yet find a way forward. The “right” gesture is so subtle it’s only noticed when turned just so and the edge is hit by reflected light.

Success, when we continue the dialogue.

Image courtesy of Philip Pavia who taught me how to carve stone.

July 22, 2013


I see a blue shrouded river becoming clear only in brief glimpses beyond the present. I’m drawn by the hope that the route will be absolute relative to some distance landing. I move forward carving out its future form.

I’m a curious human, I “meander” it’s my unique way of gathering and learning. People have different styles and I admit I’m a little jealous of those with a more straightforward methodologies. My approach leans toward the poetic and perhaps I do have a touch of CADD (Creative Attention Deficit Disorder) or another way to label me is “life long learner.” The flipside is a nagging feeling that I simply can’t stay focused.

I’ve been waiting for years to wake up one morning and discover an alchemy of all my past investigations. I’d arrive in my studio and everything would fall together and sense and connection would flow out.

There have been glimmers, moments when the web is revealed but greater is the realization that the practice is ongoing daily work. Insight is constant learning overlaid with time to consciously weave and long periods of dark gestation.

The more interesting question maybe why…what is the value in bringing together disparate fields, thoughts and disciplines?

There are exponential wicked problems in the world equal only to the opportunity to bring our awareness alive. The gift of this inquiry is a kind of presence that leaves us deeply open to our  creativity  and consequently gives us the ability to discover solutions far removed from the  known landscape.

As a start I simply want to notice more and think out loud.

Welcome to Radical Synthesis.