Designing for the unknown

Simon King on design intuition and designing solutions that work for the user both now and in an unforeseen future.

Design principles are being applied in all aspects of business today — they are no longer limited to graphic design, product design, web design or even experience design. I recently had the chance to speak with Simon King, design director and interaction design community lead at IDEO in Chicago. In our conversation, King talks about balancing design intuition with prototyping and testing, designing beyond the screen, and designing for the unknown.

At IDEO, they take a human-centered approach, observing the user in their environments. That research informs their design process, says King, but they also rely heavily on collaborative design teams with diverse experience, which helps to bring a fresh perspective to every project:

“Our project teams are generally dedicated in working together on one topic. They draw from all this inspiration. They utilize their intuition. They generate a bunch of ideas and build on the ideas of others. That’s really key to having these project teams of diverse designers together so we can build on each other’s ideas. Another big part of it is that in every project, people are working on totally different domains. They’re working in different industries. They’re working for different types of users. We can really cross-pollinate the things that we’ve seen in one area and apply them to another area during that ideation process.”

The design intuition that’s developed by designers working with a wide variety of users and across different industries represents one of the greatest values that designers contribute to the process. King explains:

“Design intuition is really an incredibly powerful tool that we can pull from. When some people think of intuition, they just think you’re making things up. It’s really not. It’s not just this gut feeling that comes out of nowhere. It’s us drawing upon the aggregate of all of our experiences from all these other projects that we worked on and design situations that we’ve encountered that have some similarities.”

At the same time, that intuition still needs to be tested. King notes that it’s often through this testing and prototyping process that the best solutions for the user are born:

“You want your design to be better. You’re not just rooting for your design from the beginning. We put it in situations where it can reveal its flaws. We show it to people. We try to get them to talk about where it breaks down because otherwise, we fall into this trap of confirmation bias where we’re just designing for ourselves and wanting to hear if it’s good or not. That aspect of remaining open to change is really through making sure that we’re bringing in those voices of the users throughout the process.”

This balance is particularly important as designers move beyond the screen and design for a physical environment or, with the emergence of the Internet of Things, designing for the integration of the physical and digital environments. Designers play a key role in determining not only what can be done but why. Should something be developed simply because it’s possible? What’s the value? King notes the importance of exploring these questions:

“We’re starting to see some really interesting human-centered uses emerge. We’re seeing this become mainstream in terms of people’s understanding that an object can be more than just an object and that the digital world isn’t only on screens. There’s a more fluid interplay between these things. It’s a really crucial time for designers to get involved, to explore the feasibility, not just the technical feasibility that we can connect things together but really why should we and what are people getting out of it. It’s a material for us to design with. It’s really like any other medium.”

This leads to the notion of designing for the unknown and the evolution of a design as a result of how users choose to use it. King stresses that the context that informed a particular design is going to change, and it’s essential to embrace this idea from the beginning of the design process:

“What [the standard design process] leaves out is the fact that the context that has informed this design is actually something that’s changing over time. It’s going to change. The world is going to change. People are going to change. Situations change. We can only really design for a particular experience. The user can decide to follow it or reject it or adapt it. The more we embrace that, the more we can create things that actually live on beyond the immediate context we’re designing for.”

You can listen to the entire interview in the player above, or through our O’Reilly SoundCloud stream.

This interview is part of our ongoing investigations into Experience Design and Business and Experience Design and the Internet of Things.

tags: , , , , ,