Designing Ideation: Don’t Be A Tool

How tools define our creative output.

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.

Here’s Jesse James Garrett at the recent IA Summit 2009 in Memphis quoting Michael Wesch quoting Marshall McLuhan:

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?

In my view, a design method consists of a complex set of techniques tied together by a common, underlying philosophy. Every designer has a repertoire of methods and examples that make up his or her experience. The experience is of course tied to what sorts of projects the designer has been working on. The examples that a designer has seen influences how design problems are framed; they also embody the designer’s knowledge of the design materials. Someone who has worked only with web projects has a repertoire of examples from the web, but also has  knowledge in design materials like paper, Omnigraffle, XHTML, Photoshop, JavaScript, et cetera. As user experience professionals charged with designing information,  spaces,  and interactions between people, people and spaces;  people and objects;  and people and systems,  I think we need to step back and try other media, materials, and methods in the problem space exploration phase of our engagement. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to doing what we´ve always done, with the materials we´ve always used, according to a methodology handed down by management because it is the latest three-letter acronym.

“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

Will Evans

Will Evans is Director, User Experience Practice Lead for Twin Technologies with 14 years industry experience in presentation layer and user experience design. His experiences includes directing UX for AIR Worldwide, UX Architect for social media site, and UX Architect responsible for the interaction design of He worked at Lotus/IBM where he was the senior information architect, and for Curl - a DARPA-funded MIT project when he was at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Will holds masters degrees in business administration, human-computer interaction and cognitive psychology. His interests have focused on design, information architecture, human factors and information visualization. He earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics and philosophy.

7 comments on this article

  1. This is a great synopsis, Will. The one thing I would add is the level of responsibility we really hold to push back on those forced methods. We could really be doing a disservice to audiences if we don’t work harder for them. It’s hard for leaders not to be prescriptive, they don’t always know better and they want repeatable results. We have to persuade them to let us try things. The unintended consequences of a little confusion here and a little annoyance there add up over time to a world that becomes less desirable to inhabit.

    If we embrace this understanding, we actually have the opportunity to be artists as defined by McCluhan, “The artist is the man in any field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of new knowledge in his own time.” (notwithstanding the masculine pronouns-it was 1964) 😉

  2. Great insight… this is very helpful. It can be so easy to fall into the thought pattern of “this is how we have always done it”, or “this is what has worked before”. I read a quote that started me thinking about this

    “New technology + same old thinking = same old outcome with a buggy interface.”

    And now after reading this… it is a great challenge not just go with what has always worked, but to look outside the forced methods, and routines and see what else can be applied.

    Aaron I

  3. Will,

    I like your post for a couple of reasons.

    First, I like tools, all kinds of them, and I’ve not really thought of the extent to which they limit the final product. I enjoyed Wesch’s talk at the summit. Although it cured me of any lingering desire to study anthropology. He clearly showed the power of tools to define; I like that you’ve taken things a step further.

    It strikes me that it really is another example of the Innovator’s Dilemma. Why try new tools and methods if your client hired you based on what you’d done before, or to fill a role in his methodology? Of course, if you follow that road we live in a world steam shovels and 16 inch disk drives, just what the client ordered.

    And, second, I dig the Lego pictures. I accidentally swallowed one when I was a kid, but they were (are) tremendously fun.

  4. I think you are doing designers a service by reminding them not to turn into tools. You are what you use, etc. so use quite a few different tools because each one gives you a different perspective on the project you´re working on. Your quote from McLuhan is incisive because of the way you use it to drive home your central point about divergent thinking.

  5. solle on

    MM quote is relevant to trying to understand existing limits of innovation and vision within context of credit crunch and recession

  6. Pingback: Bookmarks for 04/02/2009 — MK Anderson

  7. Vicky Teinaki on

    David Allen @gtdguy had a great tweet about this:
    “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s hard to eat spaghetti.”