Sunday, April 30, 2006


what design can learn from health research

Interdisciplinary teams can offer more perspectives on an issue, and more insights for creating a design. Fortunately the culture wars between "creatives" and usability engineers during the era are mostly forgotten now. But tensions remain below the surface, and interdisciplinary teams often involve more horse trading than a single collective understanding. The reason for this is that true interdisciplinary research involves acknowledging what one doesn't have an answer to.

I was recently reading a book on health research and recognized some of the same kinds of alternative attitudes that affect the design community. To simplify, there are two camps: the "holists", who see health as a difficult-to-articulate but complex interaction of mental, social and physical processes; and the "hard scientists" who believe only in hard data that is unambiguous. The holists deride the hard scientists for narrow-minded "reductionism," while the hard scientists dismiss the holists as given to woolly-minded New Age thinking.

What seems to be happening in at least some health research is the formation of real interdisciplinary research. Whereas previously anthropologists and immunologists both studied disease, they did so independently, without consulting the other's work. Now it is common for social and behavioral scientists to work together with biological scientists to study the interplay of biological and non-biological factors on a certain health issue. The upshot is that the biologists often find that the reality is more complex than previously thought, that strict genetic and biological factors don't explain certain variations. The non-biologists also find the reality more complex as well, that folk wisdom is only partly accurate, or that their intuitions about the behavioral side of health effects cannot easily be generalized the wider population.

In the design world, creatives worry about the reductionism of usability missing the big picture. Usability engineers worry the loosey-goosey decision making of creatives plays roulette with design. What interdisciplinary design can highlight, and attempt to overcome, are the limitation of both the intuitive and data-driven approaches. Intuitives can recognize many patterns in "soft data" that are difficult for hard data methods to find. Hard data can miss nuances because it is too aggregated, or looking at an irrelevant or lagging variable. But intuitive insights can be wrong as well, either over-generalizing, or even becoming a false dogma because they sound like common sense when the reality is counter-intuitive.

Personally, I look forward to interdisciplinary design opening up thinking for all people involved in interaction design. Too much faith is placed in best practice rules and methods, or data collection and decomposition. Too much hope is placed on inspiration as the divine source of good design.

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