Last weekend, with cold and rainy weather outside, I was browsing through my library. I was not looking for something special, nor was I bored and without lecture. It must have been one of those thoughtless acts, I guess. I just like to touch books. They trigger ideas, at least for me, in my head. So, I stumbled upon Tim Brown’s “Design Thinking Bible” Change by Design (2009), which I haven’t opened for quite some time now. Being a designer by trade the proposed processes of observing, reflecting and developing have somehow always come as a natural approach to creation, as well as to problem solving. But reading the book has put everything in perspective and lifted my thoughts and processes to another level.
Without constraints design cannot happen, and the best design is often carried out within quite severe constraints.Tim Brown
I opened the book, trying to decipher my pencil scrabbles left on the pages. “The first stage of the design process is often about discovering which constraints are important and establishing a framework for evaluating them”, is circled out. Reading a few more lines, I start to remember that the mentioned constraints are usually visualised with three overlapping criteria:
or what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future.
or what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model.
or what makes sense to people and for people.
Best practice or differentiation
Finding the balance of this triptych is the holy grail of a good idea, good design and finally a solution worth being remembered. This balance needs to be based on the companies’ or schools’ very own values and strategies. There cannot be a “single or best solution” for a (design) problem. Although imitating best practice would look like common sense. “By seeking inspiration from the outside, we hope to fight complacency and the not-invented-here-syndrome, which often leads companies (or schools) to reject ideas generated elsewhere. This would be fine if the practices, methods, and approaches we chose were the right ones. Unfortunately, they usually aren’t. An additional problem arises from the search for best practices. It distracts companies (or schools) from what might give them a real advantage: differentiation (Sibony, 2020).”
This “undifferentiated” approach is not only visible in the strategies, processes and products or services offered, often blaming it on unalterable rules and regulations et cetera, but also in the implementation and use of technology.
Minimalist screening rules
Often out of lack of time, ignorance or because of “best practice” in their field, companies and schools look at technology in a rather binary way: they either “like” and therefore highly use an application, different devices or processes. If they don’t adhere to it, they don’t, period.
Clearly only with the best motives in mind, these companies or schools unconsciously create a “digital ecosystem” which possibly traps its users (management, members of staff, faculty and students et cetera). This system has them engage (or not) beyond (or not far enough) the original purpose and actual need. Either way and most dangerously, the users are somehow involved beyond their human capacity. The system consciously put in place to deliver, to be quicker and more precise, trough technological help or not, may turn out to actually do the opposite in the long run. It burns people out, as their attention span, even if rather stretchable, is only as big as it is. “Attention is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. This implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others (James, 1890).” Within his development of “Deep Work” and “Digital Minimalism” Cal Newport proposes three screening questions that need to be affirmatively answered in order for specific technology to pass, for it to be put in place and used. He never linked these questions to the before mentioned 3 criteria of constraints, but a clear parallel in the thought process and the approach are visible.
In order to allow an optional technology to be introduced into a company or school, it must comply with all three following statements:
- It must serve something the company or school values deeply (offering some benefit is not enough).
I look at this as an interpretation of the Desirability criteria, as the technology needs to make deep sense to people and for people (users and beneficiaries).
- It must be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it is not, replace it with something better). This is an interpretation of the Viability criteria. The technology needs to be the best possible solution and part of a sustainable business model.
- It must have a role in their activities that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how members of staff use it.
To finish, this question takes the Feasibility criteria into reality. The technology needs to profoundly improve what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future for the company or the school.
My article is food for thought and wants to enhance a possible approach, a mindset. I do agree that having to dogmatically answer all these questions is a bit too much to ask for a company or a school with much more complex economical or social structures than pointed out here.
But as mentioned in a previous article: Technology, if used and implemented correctly, can and should help everybody to focus more easily. It needs be a facilitating power to free time, not a gadget or something that is added just to be part of the club of “best practitioners”. Technology needs to help to be creative again and perhaps to finally find that hour of spare time.
“Sometimes we need to leave best practices to those who invented them and find a personal approach. (Sibony, 2020)” We may seem to be less cutting edge, but the results will be unimaginable. Some like to play along and luckily win a few points in the short term. Others prefer adapting the strategy, to re-write the rules, before imposing a whole different game on the long run.
Brown, T., (2009). Change by Design. Harper Collins Business.
Sibony, O., (2020). You’re about to make a terrible mistake!. Little Brown Spark Publishers.
Newport, C., (2019). Digital Minimalism: On living better with less technology. Penguin Business.
James, W., (1890). The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1. New York: Henry Holt and Co.