Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The One Percent Inspiration

Good design carries with it a certain esthetic that is specific to its problem domain. Buckminster Fuller was probably talking about architecture when he said

When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

But this is a phenomena well known to software developers too, and probably designers in all domains. I suggest that successful designers in any domain require a high degree of left-brain/right-brain integration. Studies have shown that in general the left half of the brain handles the concrete (arithmetic), while the right half handles the abstract (philosophy). For the problem domain I know something about, software design, the detail-oriented job of writing good code surely must be a left-brain thing, but the esthetic from which good design emerges rests in the right-brain.

I need all the help I can get for the right half of my brain. That's my rationale as to why I can often be caught talking aloud to myself: it has been suggested that this is one way to increase the bandwidth between the halves of the brain. (My spousal unit would counter that it is because I like the sound of my own voice.) Lately I've been evaluating another tool to aid creativity and inspiration: design cards. These are decks of cards, reminiscent of the flash cards that some of us may be old enough to remember, that are intended to spur discussion, jog memories, suggest alternatives, and foster innovation.

I have four different decks of design cards that I've been comparing. They differ greatly in terms of execution and intent, and range from being very general (Oblique Strategies: "Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics") to quite specific (Drivers of Change 2006: "What will we do in a global knowledge economy when we have outsourced everything?"). While they are in no way specific to software development, it is my belief that they could be useful in software design or elsewhere in the product development process.

Here are capsule reviews of all four decks in order from general to specific. (In all cases you can click on the image of the card to see a larger version.)

Oblique Strategies (5th edition)
103 cards, 9.5cm x 7cm each
Brian Eno and Peter Schmid

The Oblique Strategies cards are the oldest of the design card decks, and perhaps the most generally well known, the first edition having been published around 1975. Designed by Brian Eno (yes, that Brian Eno) and Peter Schmidt, the cards are about the size of playing cards and are one-sided (the backs of the cards are uniformly black). Each card offers a zen-like phrase, like "Gardening, not architecture", intended to foster out-of-the-box thinking.

Example: ObliqueStrategies

The typical response of the engineer in me (meaning: my left-brain) is WTF? But the aesthete in me (right-brain) likes these cards a lot. I think their strength is in their ambiguity. The halves of your brain struggle to agree on an interpretation, and after a few seconds you suddenly realize that "Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics" might actually be pretty darn good advice when grappling with an issue of abstraction versus implementation in software design.

The Oblique Strategies cards are worth a look if nothing else because they have a time-proven track record. I find them useful to sort through and ponder when I get stuck on a design problem or even a difficult bug.

Design and Beauty Cards
61 cards, 15cm x 10cm each
(These appear to be out of print already.)

Author and management consultant Tom Peters has become controversial in recent years when fans of evidence-based management started asking what happened to those great companies, like Data General, DEC, and Wang, he described in his book In Search of Excellence, many of whom did not survive the dot.com crash. Then there was the 2001 Fast Company interview in which he suggested he might have cooked the data. Well, Peters would hardly be the first guru I've followed that had feet of clay, and I still find much wisdom in his work.

His Design and Beauty cards are flash-card-sized, and have a front side with a basic principle ("design for error") with an appropriate graphic design, and a back side with more detail ("Big idea: to err is human. And it's usually the designer's fault. Don't think 'pilot error,' think 'designer error.' So trouble shoot in advance. Examine all the possible ways someone naive might screw up your project's deliverables. Know where those errors might occur and compensate in the design").

Example: Design and Beauty (front)
Example: Design and Beauty (back)

The layout of the Design and Beauty cards is clever: the front side appeals to the right-brain, the back side to the left. They lack the appealing ambiguity of the Oblique Strategies cards, and because they are more specific, you might have to go through quite a bit of the deck to find a card that you think applies to the quandry you are trying to solve. They have the look of a set of Peters' PowerPoint slides, and I'm sure that's how they started out. But they offer rules of thumb that I think would be useful whether you are designing software, brainstorming a new product, or planning a marketing campaign.

The instructions suggest going through the entire deck and sorting the cards into doesn't apply, might apply, and definitely apply. Used in this way, as memory joggers, issue reminders, and discussion motivators, they could be quite useful, particularly in a group setting.

IDEO Method Cards
50 cards, 14cm x 9cm each

Palo Alto design house IDEO is known for winning more BusinessWeek Industrial Design Excellence Awards than any other firm. They have designed products ranging from personal digital assistants to office chairs. Their Method Cards on the surface are reminiscent of Peters' Design and Beauty cards: clever appropriate graphic on the front, detail on the back.

Example: Method Cards (front)
Example: Method Cards (back)

They differ in that the detail on the back of each card is more focused on specific strategies to be used in product development. For example, under "Scenarios": "HOW: Illustrate a character-rich story line describing the context of use for a product or service. WHY: This process helps to communciate and test the essence of a design idea within its probable context of use. It is especially useful for the evaluation of service concepts." That's virtually word for word out of the software developer's "user story" and "use case" playbook.

The cards are organized into four categories: learn, look, ask, and try, encouraging the user to be more end-user facing and more evidence-based. Echoing IDEO's human factors approach to design, the cards are very human-centric in their suggestions. I think they would be especially useful in early stages of product development, including software products, where requirements for the user interface (whether it be a GUI or a door handle) are being discussed.

Drivers of Change 2006
50 cards, 16.5cm x 11.5cm each

The Drivers of Change (2006 edition) cards, from the U.K.-based design and engineering firm ARUP, are by far the most detailed and specific of those discussed here. Each largish card has the format of a card-catalog card, with an index tab identifying its driver as social, technology, environment, economic, and political. The front of each card has the usual graphic and general topic, but also includes a paragraph with more detail. The back of each card has even more data, frequently including charts and graphs to draw in those folks who scored a high Sensing in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Example: Drivers of Change 2006 (back)
Example: Drivers of Change 2006 (front)

If anything, the Drivers of Change cards are too dense with information. They tend to distract me from the problem at hand as I stop for several minutes to read all the detail present on both sides of the card. The timely data they offer will appeal to the left-brain-dominants among us, but will make the cards less useful over time. I can definitely see ordering a new set of Drivers of Change as later editions become available.

While I am not convinced of their usefulness for design, I think they would be very apropos early in the product development lifecycle, perhaps when brainstorming with a group of right-brainers who need a reality check. For example, if designing a product for deployment into third-world countries, the card "Literacy - who taught you to read? 18% of the world's adult population cannot read this card (whatever language it is printed in)." might give you pause. (And that's just the front side.) Even better, the deck includes a set of footnotes leading you to the raw data, which is frequently available on the web.

I find the Drivers of Change cards fascinating in and of themselves, and sometimes a little scary. I suspect I will eventually read all of them, front to back.

The cost of each of these decks of cards is on the order of tens of dollars, and often I found better prices at web sites selling architectural books. These card decks could be a valuable tool for any group or individual who needs a little help with left-brain/right-brain integration.

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