Design Methods as Performative Objects

By , July 10, 2014 8:02 pm

Brown and Duguid’s (2001) concept of a “network of practice” has been niggling away at my consciousness. The idea is that a collection of people are enabled to understand each others’ work because of commonalities in practice, but not to the extent that a Community of Practice creates shared ways of framing and performing work:

“we include under the rubric … groups whose members, to the extent that they have common practices, are able to read and understand one another’s work. Disciplinary networks of practice cut across heterogeneous organizations, including, for example, universities, think tanks, or research labs. Professions make up yet other such networks of practice, where again similar practitioners, by virtue of their practice, are able to share professional knowledge through conferences, workshops, newsletters, listservs, Web pages and the like. … different networks of practice cut horizontally across vertically integrated organizations and extend far beyond the boundaries of the latter. Along these networks, knowledge can flow.” (Brown and Duguid 2001, p. 206)

So create closer bonds than organizational membership, spanning organizational boundaries. If the type of intersubjectivity that derives from shared practice (i.e. what Polanyi calls tacit knowledge) does not underpin a network of practice, what does? This rings true, given the observation that IT professionals identify more with the interests of their profession than with their organization (Chou and Pearson 2012). Which brings me to the second property of networks of practice:

“it is important to note that networks of practice may also inhibit the flow of knowledge. As Lynn et al (1996) show, professional networks will occasionally work to resist the spread of ideas felt to be inimical to the interests of the network’s members.” (Brown and Duguid 2001, p. 207).

So how do networks of practice share knowledge? Brown and Duguid have an explanation:

“We have used the notion of networks of practice to explain leakiness. This is not, we have suggested, simply an inherent property of some kinds of knowledge. It does not result from making knowledge explicit and so tradable. It is, rather, a function of the common underlying practice, which creates social-epistemic bonds. Where practice doesn’t prepare the ground, knowledge is unlikely to flow.” (Brown and Duguid 2001, p. 207)

But this is not very satisfying when members of the network are not co-located. Surely, “common underlying practice” includes some form of shared framing as the basis of those social-epistemic bonds? I thought back to the work of Howard Rosenbrock (1981), who explains that IT professionals’ paradigm of system design with the aim of making users interchangeable results in deskilled, repetitive, and unfulfilling jobs for those who use these systems. He explains:

“The paradigm is transmitted from one generation to another, not by explicit teaching but by shared problem-solving. Young engineers take part in design exercises, and later in real design projects as members of a team. In doing so, they learn to see the world in a special way: the way in fact which makes it amenable to the professional techniques which they have available.” Rosenbrock (1981, p.6),

So we have design methods as a form of performativity, embedding ways of framing job design, as well as creating a shared design practice that ignores users’ psychological and motivation needs. But surely, IT professionals are continually learning, acquiring new skills and approaches to system design? It would appear not:

“The fact that most IS professionals learn the bulk of their technical skills during college or immediately afterward encourages recruiters to focus on technical skills for new hires. IS professionals generally learn non-technical skills in the workplace.” (Lee et al. 2001, p.28).

All is not lost. Lee et al. (2001) go on to observe

“IS professionals generally learn non-technical skills in the workplace. And because these non-technical skills are so valuable in the long term, new hires need to possess the aptitude to learn these skills. This may help explain why recruiters prefer graduates who took more MIS classes than those who concentrated strictly on computer science courses.” (Lee et al. 2001, p.28).

How can we remedy the perspective that leads to such impoverished outcomes? As Rosenbrock observes, IT systems can be seen as a replacement for human ingenuity and skill, or as a way of supporting these. We have a choice to automate or to informate work (Zuboff 1988). We also have two chances to undermine the automation-on-rails approach taught in so many methods classes. Back to the network of practice idea. IT professionals have a network of practice with really strong bonds. We can teach IS methods more thoughtfully to those who return – for ongoing education in Masters degrees, etc.  Finally, we can mobilize the network of practice, on LinkedIn and elsewhere, to ensure that IT professionals are aware of the types of skill and knowledge-preserving approaches to organizational system design that we would want to see used in our own organizations.


Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. 2001. “Knowledge and Organization: A Social-Practice Perspective,” Organization Science (12:2), pp. 198-213.

Chou, S.Y. and Pearson, J.M. 2012. “Organizational Citizenship Behaviour in It Professionals: An Expectancy Theory Approach,” Management Research Review (35:12), pp. 1170-1186.

Lee, S., Yen, D., Havelka, D., and Koh, S. 2001. “Evolution of Is Professionals’ Competency: An Exploratory Study,” The Journal of Computer Information Systems (41:4), pp. 21-30.

Rosenbrock, H.H. 1981. “Engineers and the Work That People Do,” IEEE Control Systems Magazine (1:3), pp. 4-8.

Zuboff, S. 1988. In the Age of the Smart Machine. New York NY: Basic Books.

Responsive Web Design

By , March 12, 2014 2:41 pm

I manage the website for an Animal Rescue shelter. I have been struggling with the design of the site for some time now, as I have some users who are still using IE6 under windows XP (on an SVGA screen), some who want to view the site on their mobile phones, and some who have really wide displays and think my two column design looks outdated (it does). While looking for a solution, I came across the concept of responsive web design. Because the reference I just provided is stuffed with code snippets (and I personally think it is obscure), I will point you instead to some really great examples that demonstrate how a website design can be responsive.

There is a neat concept at play in most of these designs, where a webpage layout is segmented into multi-device layout patterns, that simply “flow” differently, depending on the screen size that the user will display the site on. But screen size is not the only consideration – images have to be resized to scale with the device and the performance of the device must be considered (it is painful to load a large, graphics-intensive page on a slooow tablet!). I was also musing that – most relevantly to this course – site menus and navigation toolbar interfaces have to be designed so that they will work on any device or layout. Which is harder than you’d think, simply because of the layout conventions that we use on a typical web-page.

Off to experiment with scripts and pageflow layouts …

On Realizing The Relevance of Actor-Network Theory

By , September 23, 2013 8:28 pm

A recent emphasis on sociomateriality appears to have entered the IS literature because of discussions by Orlikowski (2010) and the excellent empirical study of Volkoff et al. (2007). Now that people have been sensitized to the literature on material practice, actor-network theory is classified as “tired and uninformative” [1]. Which leads me to wonder just how many IS academics have actually read the actor-network theorists? Or pondered how this applies to technology design?

Long before people started discussing socio-material “assemblages,” Bruno Latour (1987)and John Law (1987) were discussing how technology developed by means of “heterogeneous networks” of material and human actants, the combination of which directs the trajectory of technology design and form. Latour (1999) suggests that he should recall the term “actor-network,” as this is too easily confused with the world-wide web. Yet actor-networking – in the sense of a web of connectivity, where heterogeneous interactions between diverse individuals, between virtually-mediated groups, and between individuals and material forms of embedded intentionality – is exactly what is going on in today’s organizations.

In addition, Michel Callon’s (1986) work on how the “problematization” of a situation in ways that aligns the interests of others leads to their enrolment in a network of support for a specific technological frame. Once support has been enrolled, such networks endow irreversibility, which makes changes to the accepted form of a technology solution incredibly difficult. So we have paradigms that are embedded in a specific design. Akrich coined the term “script” to define the performativity of technology and the term was adopted by the other leading actor-network theorists [2]. This thread of work articulates incredibly deeply the ways in which technology design directs its users (and maintainers) into a set of roles and worldviews that are difficult to escape. We must “de-script” technology to repurpose it to other networks and other applications – which is much more difficult than one would suppose, given the embedded social worlds that are carried across networks of practice with the use of common technologies (Akrich 1992).
So what does actor-network theory give us? It provides a conceptual and practical approach to understanding and modeling why design takes specific forms – and what needs to be “undone” for a design to be conceived differently than in the past [3]. It provides a rationale for understanding technology as a network actor in its own right, influencing behavior and constraining discovery. The assumptional frameworks for action embedded in – for example – a software book-pricing application will direct the evaluation of price alternatives in ways that reflects the model of decision-making adopted by the software’s author. This results in the type of stupid automaticity that recently saw an Amazon book priced at $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping). The cause of this pricing glitch was traced back to an actor-network of two competing sellers, unknowingly connected via their use of the same automated pricing software [4].

Finally, I want to observe that a lot of the recent “materiality of practice” literature has identified new phenomena and new mechanisms of actor-networks. For example Knorr Cetina (1999) has sensitized us to how epistemology is embedded in socio-technical assemblages, Rheinberger (1997) has demonstrated how some technical objects are associated with emergence while others enforce standardization and Henderson (1999) demonstrates how the use of specific representations can conscript others around an organizational power-base. But I would argue that these effects can be understood by using Actor-Network Theory as one’s underpinning epistemology – and that exploring actor-network interactions continues to reveal ever newer mechanisms that are relevant to how we work today. I would strongly recommend Bruno Latour’s latest book, Reassembling The Social.

[1] I have to declare an interest here – this comment was contained in a review of one of my papers … :-)
[2] As Latour (1992) argues: “Following Madeleine Akrich’s lead (Akrich 1992), we will speak only in terms of scripts or scenes or scenarios … played by human or nonhuman actants, which may be either figurative or nonfigurative.”
[3] One of my favorite papers on the topic of irreversibility in design is ‘How The Refrigerator Got Its Hum,’ by Ruth Cowan (1995). Another good read is the introduction to the same book by MacKenzie and Wajcman (1999).
[4] The amusing outcome is recounted by Michael Eisen, at

Akrich, M. 1992. The De-Scription Of Technical Objects. W.E. Bijker, J. Law, eds. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies In Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 205-224.
Callon, M. 1986. “Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay.” J. Law, ed. Power, Action, and Belief: a New Sociology of Knowledge? Socioogical Review Monograph 32. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 196-233.
Cowan, R.S. 1995. “How the Refrigerator Got its Hum.” D. Mackenzie, J. Wajcman, eds. The Social Shaping of Technology. Open University Press, Buckingham UK, 281-300.
Henderson, K. 1999. On Line and on Paper: Visual Representations, Visual Culture,and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering. MIT Press, Harvard MA.
Knorr Cetina, K.D. 1999. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA.
Latour, B. 1987. Science in Action. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.
Latour, B. 1992. “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts.” W.E. Bijker, J. Law, eds. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies In Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
Latour, B. 1999. “On Recalling ANT.” J. Law, J. Hassard, eds. Actor Network and After. Blackwell, Oxford, UK 15-25.
Law, J. 1987. “Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering – The Case Of Portugese Expansion.” W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, T.J. Pinch, eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
MacKenzie, D.A., J. Wajcman. 1999. Introductory Essay. D.A. Mackenzie, J. Wajcman, eds. The Social Shaping Of Technology, 2nd. ed. Open University Press, Milton Keynes UK, 3-27.
Orlikowski, W. 2010. “The sociomateriality of organisational life: considering technology in management research.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 34(1) 125-141.
Rheinberger, H.-J. 1997. Experimental Systems and Epistemic Things Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 24-37.
Volkoff, O., D.M. Strong, M.B. Elmes. 2007. “Technological Embeddedness and Organizational Change.” Organization Science 18(5) 832-848.

Designing Social Media Platforms For Online Learning

By , January 14, 2012 3:52 pm

Recently, I have been using a new social media platform to run one of my classes. The idea was, that as we are studying social informatics, we could study the effect of using social media on our own workflows first hand. I also thought that – in these days of daily Facebook and Twitter use – a social media site would add some relevance to the class. My thinking was that the “right-brain” expression that Daniel Pink  extolls as critical to motivation in the 21st Century – the design, narrative, synthesis, empathy, play and sensemaking skills – would be enabled by the use of social media (Pink, 2005). The site has a WIKI, blogs, discussion forums, and an interactive chat facility. I was proposing that we used Google+ hangout for short class discussions by video. For the first week, I set students the task to post to the WIKI, to post to their own blog, to locate some web readings, and to join Google+ if they had not already done so.

By Thursday (from a Monday start), almost all of the students had posted to the discussion forum. Several had asked me questions by email. But no-one had posted to the Blog or the WIKI. By Friday, two of the more technologically-literate students had made blog posts. But most of the activity was still on the discussion forums – and only three students had provided me with Google+ contact details. Then I started to question my own assumptions. All of the students had used Blackboard for their online course access, which revolves around an asynchronous discussion board. So they were used to interacting via an asynchronous forum. I had assumed that they would be excited to use more “social” media for class interactions or for sharing what they had discovered about the topic. But how did this fit into their idea of how they would behave in an online class? Very badly. Most students sign up for online courses because this provides them with choices about what to do, when. They have a low learning-curve for using a discussion forum. Anything else is hard work.

Clay Shirky talks about the cognitive surplus that is available from zillions of digitally-literate people with mundane jobs and untapped creativity. He argues that this expresses itself in the groundswell of free, open source software initiatives and in the crowdsourcing phenomenon (Shirky, 2010). But graduate students with a full-time job are already using their cognitive surplus in grappling with new areas of learning. My assumption that they may have some left over for experimenting with social media may be false. The problem is that the learning curve gets in the way of the “right-brain” expression that I wanted to encourage. I may need to rethink how far experimenting with social media is constraining people’s’ ability to express themselves.

Daniel Pink  (2005) A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Berkely Publishing: New York.
Pink (2005) Revenge Of The Right Brain, Wired Magazine, Feb. 2005.
Clay Shirky (2010) Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Penguin Press: New York.
Clay SHirky (2010) An Extract From Cognitive Surplus. Wired Magazine, Business Video, June 16, 2010.
Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink  (2010) Cognitive Surplus: The Great Spare-Time Revolution. Wired Magazine, June 2010.

Organizational Forms Of Coordination

By , February 25, 2011 6:39 pm

I have been working for a while on comparing the results from some very complex research studies of collaborative design in groups that span disciplines or knowledge domains. I was stunned to realize that I had different types of group activity depending on the sort of organization.

By “organization,” I mean the way in which work is organized, not the sort of business they are in. I noted three types or organization, that seem to respond to collaboration in different ways:

  • Tightly-coupled work organizations rely on well-defined work roles and responsibilities to coordinate tasks across group members. When people in this sort of group have to make decisions, they partition these decisions, based on expertise. Because they all know each others’ capabilities and roles, they don’t have to think about who-knows-what: this is just obvious. This type of organization falls down when people don’t perform their role reliably. For example, if the whole system relies on accurate information coming into the group, someone who misinterprets what they observed can undermine the whole group system.
  • Event-driven organizations rely on external crises and pressures to coordinate group action. People in this sort of group have strongly-defined roles in the wider organization that take precedence over their role in the group — for example in management taskforce groups, business managers tend to prioritize their other work over problems that the group needs to fix. When people in this sort of group make decisions, they partition these decisions according to who-claims-to-know-what, who has time to do the work, and who knows people connected to the problem. They get to know each others’ capabilities over time, but this is a slow process as priorities and decisions are driven by external events, rather than a shared perception of what needs to be done. This type of organization falls down when decisions or actions that were put on a back burner because of another crisis inevitably become a crisis themselves because they were not followed through.
  • Loosely-coupled organizations rely on ad hoc work roles and cooperation among group members. This type of group is commonest in business process change groups, professional work-groups, and community groups, where people are there because they share an interest in the outcome.  When people in this sort of group make decisions, they partition these decisions according to who can leverage external connections to find things out and who has an interest in exploring what is involved. People often share responsibilities in these groups, comparing notes to learn about the situation. This type of organization falls down because it is hard to coordinate. So shared tasks are performed badly because someone knew something vital that they failed to communicate back to the group.
Wild Horses

Managing group collaboration can be like taming wild horses

Why would we care about these different types of organization? Well these structures affect how we approach problem-solving and design. If we (process and IS analysts) need to work with one of the tightly-coupled work-groups, we need to identify who has the decision-making capability for what. It would not occur to a tightly-coupled group member that anyone would not realize who to go to for what. If we need to work with an event-driven group, we have to realize that our work will not be a priority for them — it must be made a priority by gaining an influential sponsor who can kick a$$ within the group(!).  If we work with a loosely-coupled group, we need to engage the interest of the group as a whole. Working with individuals can lead to failure, as this type of group makes decisions collaboratively, not on the basis of knowledge or expertise.

I have a fair amount of evidence for this line of thought and I am pursuing other factors that make these groups different. More to follow …

The Potential of Interaction Design

By , August 5, 2010 6:17 pm

While browsing and working on a recent paper, I mused on the missed opportunity of interaction design. Reading Terry Winograd’s (1997) From Computing Machinery to Interaction Design, I was stunned to see how visionary this was, in the context of contemporary HCI thinking which focused on interactions with computer screen interfaces (still, sadly, the main focus of much HCI work).  Winograd saw computing as a “social and commercial enterprise” and saw the role of interaction design as situating technology within social and commercial processes. This thinking is related to Suchman’s (1987) Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-machine Communication, which saw human-computer-interaction as part of a stream of activity, located in the rationale of a wider sequence of tasks. While HCI theorists were fixated on task-analysis and screen-interface design, Suchman argued that we should see tasks as related to what had gone before and what was to follow.  Winograd argued that we should design technical artifacts to be useful in the larger context of social networks and the complexities of interactive spaces.

I was reminded of this when reading a discussion of Don Norman’s (2005) Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful. In this essay, Norman argues that HCI designers focus on “human-centered design,” which he relates to support for tasks and artifact-interactions, when they should focus on “activity-centered design,”  related to the larger context of what people do. While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment (and applaud the fact that the idea will at last get an audience if Don Norman has taken it up), the concept of activity-centered design still misses the point that we need to understand how actors perceive their stream-of-reality, situated within both a social and a cognitive-processual context, for interaction design to fulfill its potential.

In my 2003 paper, Human-Centered vs. User-Centered Approaches To Information System Design, I argued that human-centered design is not the same as user-centered design. User-centered design sees the human-being as a consumer of technology, whose reality is – somehow, magically – represented by the set of functions accessed via the computer artifact. This tends to be the focus of “traditional” HCI research. Human-centered design, on the other hand, sees the human-being as an autonomous individual, who may want to perform tasks in a different way, or a different order, to other computer “users.” They see the logic of what they do – and therefore the manner of its execution – as part of a socially-situated stream of activity that is meaningful to their understanding of work-processes and not some engineer’s idea of “best practice.” This means that design methods need to deal explicitly with problem inquiry, rather than just focusing on problem closure.

In a new paper (hopefully to be accepted soon!), I have argued that situated interaction-design needs an analysis of two dimensions of the work that people do:

  • the formal vs. informal translations that need to take place, to locate work practice in both the social (unstructured-interaction)  and organizational (structured-interaction) worlds, and
  • the global vs. local translations that need to take place to locate work practice in both the situated and generically subjective worlds.

Most of our design methods focus only on one quartile of this reality: the formal, structured world of data-processing. To really support interaction design, both education and practice need to take on a much wider scope.

Thank you, NSF!

By , May 12, 2010 5:16 pm

I just filed the final project report for my Career Award yesterday, so I’d like to give my personal thanks to the good folks of the Human-Centered Computing group at the Computing, Information Systems & Engineering (CISE) Directorate of the National Science Foundation. The materials in my book and my ongoing research agenda are possible thanks to their support under Grant No. IIS-0347595. (Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.) Many thanks, NSF!

Chapter 1 of Book Available

By , May 11, 2010 3:49 pm

Chapter 1 for Improvising Design book has been uploaded. The first chapter discusses why we need better models and methods for design … and why design is improvisational. Doubtless, stuff will be shifted around a little, as I complete my write-up of research findings chapters. But this is a good introduction to why we need to change our approach to design.

Design as Bricolage.

By , April 12, 2010 2:32 pm

When attending a boundary-spanning design meeting the other day, I was reminded of how important pattern sensitization is to design. When we explore a new problem-situation, we structure it according to the patterns that we perceive in that situation. This is why experienced designers are so much better at design than novices. It is not that experienced professionals are sharper, or better at design — but just that they have a wider repertoire of patterns to call upon. As they recognize familiar elements of the situation, they fit partial solutions to those elements. Problem decomposition is not hierarchical, in the sense proposed by Alexander (1964), but convergent. The problem-space and the solution-space co-evolve, as designers explore these in tandem (Maher and Poon, 1996; Maher and Tang, 2003).

Back to the meeting.
A group of strategic managers (including the systems people and the business process change manager) were examining how to revise business process support for a routine workflow. The problem that they faced was that this had been adapted by several workgroups (whose representatives were present) over time. So each of these managers had a different perspective of the problem, depending on what each group was trying to achieve. The customer support group were frustrated that they could not access all of the customer information in the system, but had to call another group to obtain missing information. The order-processing group were frustrated that they could not track the progress of an order without having to run three separate IT applications. The sales and marketing group were incensed that not all of the latest products and services were publicized on the website. None of these people – including the IT group managers – could see that these were related problems. They spent hours debating the fields to be displayed on the screens and the detailed reports needed, without realizing that the workflows were related.
The breakthrough came by accident, when the Process Improvement Manager was mapping the “requirements” on a whiteboard. He started to link two of the requirements, stood back and then said “So this step is also related to this one, isn’t it?” Then the Marketing Manager said “That comes just before the promotions stage.” As the Process Improvement Manager drew a process diagram, each individual kept adding in pieces of the puzzle, with how they were related.

Design as bricolage.
Bricolage involves repeated “trying out” and experimentation until a pattern is discerned that is useful. (The word derives from Bricoleur, a French term meaning “handy-man” or “jack- of-all-trades.”) Claudio Ciborra described bricolage as “the constant re-ordering of people and resources that is the true hallmark of organizational change.” But Bricolage is not random experimentation. It is based on leveraging the world “as defined by the situation” (Ciborra, 2002). Pattern sensitization adds another dimension to bricolage. It can now be seen as an ordering of situation elements until they make sense according to previously encountered patterns. So design is like a jigsaw. Each person carries around a partially-completed set of jigsaw pictures in their heads. The core problem of design is to use a problem-representation that can allow people to communicate the structures in their “mental jigsaw picture” to others.

Alexander, C. Notes On The Synthesis Of Form. McGraw Hill, New York NY, 1964.
Ciborra, C.U. The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, 2002
Maher, M.L., and Poon, J. “Modelling design exploration as co-evolution,” Microcomputers in Civil Engineering (11:3) 1996, pp 195-210.
Maher, M.L., and Tang, H.-H. “Co-evolution as a computational and cognitive model of design ” Research in Engineering Design (14:1) 2003, pp 47-64.

Design as the Serendipity of Location

By , November 27, 2009 2:57 pm

As I ruminate on design processes, I can’t help but reflect on the similarities between research methods, processes and outcomes, and design methods, processes and outcomes. I read an article which argued that there were two types of people: people with tidy offices and people with untidy offices1. Tidy-office people are organized and so can find anything they need. These are the people who work top-down, creating an outline then writing or designing according to that scheme. Untidy-office people are disorganized, spend a great deal of time searching for things, but also tend to be more creative because they are inspired by things which they bump into, while looking for other things. These people work bottom-up, assembling elements into a coherent whole. The article argued that there are cognitive rewards in both styles of working, that lead people to subconsciously adopt one or the other style consistently.

I was reflecting on this as I try to make sense of the piles of material that I have assembled for the book. I am definitely an untidy-office type and I wonder if this has something to do with introvert/extrovert personalities? [My project management students and I just explored an online Myers-Briggs personality test; as expected, I was an INTP type.] Perhaps introverts just prefer a “life of the mind,” where we can construct inductive models of the real world?2.

My semi-organized and shifting piles of research data, models and representations, interim findings, academic articles, and books provide a three-dimensional, systemic representation of design processes that can be reorganized as I comprehend different patterns. Of course, they are both preceded and supplemented by painstaking (and frequently revisited) processes of categorization, synthesis, and validation. But the kaleidoscope of patterns that they reflect is invaluable in suggesting different views of my findings. The same is true for design – we create the patterns that we perceive as relevant in the problem situation. As our perceptions shift, so do the design patterns that we follow.

I would argue that innovative design is neither deductive or inductive, but consists of cycles of induction and deduction. It follows a hermeneutic circle of sensemaking, as designers attempt to work from problem to solution and to reconcile those fragments of a solution that they understand back to a meaningful problem definition. The combination of deductive and inductive thinking has been described as abductive reasoning, but reasoning about design is more disciplined and rigorous than most descriptions of abduction [a hunch] would indicate. I prefer Thagard and Shelley’s (1997) argument that hypotheses about reality are layered, incomplete, and too complex to be comprehended easily3. Often, the only way to comprehend complex, interrelated elements of behavior and context is to use a visual, systemic representation.

As someone who has spent a good portion of their career as a systems designer, I have never considered design creative. Design is more about synthesizing from preconceived elements than creating from scratch4. But I wonder if – just as in research – the greatest inspiration in design derives from the serendipity of location?

Footnotes (click onto return to post)

  1. If anyone knows the reference for this paper, please let me know. I saw an NYT article on the subject, but I can’t locate the academic paper again – which was published in an information science journal, if I recall correctly …

  2. There is a neat discussion of deductive vs. inductive reasoning over at the research methods knowledge base.

  3. Paul Thagard and Cameron Shelley (1997) “Abductive reasoning: Logic, visual thinking, and coherence.” Available at (last accessed 11/27/2009).

  4. Like sex, design seems to be 30% inspiration and 70% perspiration …

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