Thursday, November 04, 2004


Iterative Design as Creative Act

I get annoyed when I hear Designers (the kind with a capital "D", who are most often graphic designers) criticize usability as uncreative, or worse, as anti-creative. It's an easy smear. It's true some usability practitioners lack imagination (as sadly do some graphic designers). And even many imaginative usability practitioners seem keen to dress-up the scientific respectability of the field. Hence some people call themselves usability engineers, as if people were robots. But most usability practitioners I know like people enormously, and have great empathy for their day to day lives that is filled with the detritus of designed artifacts. The same can't always be said of the Designers, who can perversely love things (and themselves) more than people in general.

The other aspect of the criticism of usability relates to the poor user. The Designer views him or her as uncreative as well. From the Designer's perspective, usability is a case of the blind leading the blind, and no big ideas can emerge through usability. The mantra of the criticism is: "You can't really innovate through usability." In this view, usability is just a form of editing, involving no creative writing.

A cornerstone of good user centered design is iterative design. Iterative design takes a rough design, gets users to react to it, tweaks the design, gets more user reaction, and continues until a happy design emerges (or until an immovable deadline comes up.) The essence of iterative design is that every design is tentative. As such, each design is alive, full of potential.

But iterative design is a messy process. Each group of users tested will give feedback on a design that may not always point the way forward. Often, there is too much happening in a design to isolate what features are good. And the number of users involved in an iterative test is often too few to draw solid generalizations. Sometimes iterative testing results in an idealized passage from rough draft to ever more refined version with each cycle. In practice, each cycle can introduce big unknowns where there hasn't been sufficient user data to decide how to proceed. Finding what doesn't work is only the first step toward finding what might work. Here is where creativity enters the picture in a big way. There are several options. If how to tweak the problem isn't obvious, one can always ask users for suggestions, either verbally or through a participatory exercise. More likely, the team reviewing the results will brainstorm the issue and come up with some possible solutions. The alternative solutions will need to be tested with users, since they are speculations at this point.

Exploring alternatives can yield surprises, and suggest new paths to develop. Such exploration is known in philosophical terms as abduction. This fancy sounding word refers to the process of divergent thinking, generating possibilities, in contrast to convergent thinking, zeroing in on a solution. Design theorist Nigel Cross, among many others, has argued that design is essentially abductive, speculative, conjectural. Iterative design is firmly part of this tradition. Some people mistakenly see only the convergent side of iterative design, and miss the role played by that divergent thinking during the team discussion after a testing cycle.

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