I read Marshall McLuhan years ago when I was knee deep in media theory and cognitive psychology, but it took a trip to the IA Summit in Memphis last week to bring that back – and I immediately began thinking about the materials, medium and methods we choose to use in our ideation and exploration phases and how it impacts our designs and solutions.
We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.
~ Marshall McLuhan
I think that design materials, methods and problems are all tied together in a mutual dependency. Consider the example of an online training for an interactive system. The material is set to be HTML, and perhaps Adobe Flex. This controls what the designers can do and how they perceive the problem. There are some things the designers cannot even imagine to do. I would not, for instance, consider interactive 3D-visualization of a database. To give another example, if it is decided that we build a computer game in 3D, I have already reckoned what some of the problems are: for example, modellers and animators are needed rather than a HTML-coder. But why not architects? Why not model train builders? I got this inspiration while visiting the National Building Museum, where the local Washington DC Lego Train Club was showing off their extraordinary creations. I realized that when we are framing a design problem, we shouldn’t choose the material, medium or method first – this might limit our possible solutions.
When designers decide which method to use (i.e. how to approach the design work), they also perceive the design problem in a certain way. The method (whether Agile or User Centered Design or Activity Based Design) blinds the designer to some aspects and it highlights others. Methods are nevertheless necessary, but in order to get the whole picture I must recognize these blind spots from the outset, and perhaps explore the problem space using multiple methods. Otherwise the method is pressed upon the material and the problem, and they get locked into being certain things.
when we are framing a design problem, we shouldn’t choose the material, medium or method first – this will limit our possible solutions
This has been a problem with the design of many applications and websites. The management decides on a method and it is imposed on the problem and onto the material. It doesn’t matter what the problem is, and it doesn’t matter what material the project is working with, they still use the same method ( probably one that is also trendy). However, it´s irrational to try to use the same development method in web store projects as in space shuttle projects. We should not think that there is one material and one method that works for all problem spaces, and this is especially important in the early ideation phase when we should be engaged in divergent thinking – how much divergence can their really be when the medium, material and method are already set?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the web. I hope to be working with the web in 10 years, in 20 years. But the web is just a canvas. Or perhaps a better metaphor is clay — raw material that we shape into experiences for people. But there are lots of materials — media — we can use to shape experiences. Saying user experience design is about digital media is rather like saying that sculpture is about the properties of clay. That’s not to say that an individual sculptor can’t dedicate themselves to really mastering clay. They can, and they do — just like many of you will always be really great at creating user experiences for the web.
~ Jesse James Garrett, IA Summit 2009 The Memphis Plenary
What is our clay? How do we explore and create great user experiences when we always go back to the same well, use the same materials and the same design method – how can we not always arrive at the same solutions?
When you have a hammer goes the old cliché. But what if you used clay? Legos?
“We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” McLuhan´s simple maxim is more relevant to today’s user experience designers than ever before. We need to explore new ways, new materials, and new methods if we really want to innovate and create fantastic, crafted, playful experiences that engage our audience.
Top image by batega