Recently, I traveled to Seattle with a few colleagues to attend Interaction 19. It was overwhelming. It was exciting! It was chaotic! It was educating! It was coffee-fueled! The conference brought together a diverse group of designers and educators from around the world—assembled to discuss and dissect the current and future state of interaction design. Having attended breakout sessions, workshops, and keynotes, it became clear that gone are the days of waxing poetically on craft and visual design. We're ushering a new era of service design and community empowerment.
A new era in design thinking
This new mindset came to life for me when the explosive Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun took the stage. In her keynote, Dr. Ben Hayoun imparted her wisdom on the sociological impact of new technologies, design practices, creating experiences, and so much more. Ben Hayoun, in her own French way, was saying, "If you can dream it, you can achieve it." She herself has had big design dreams and seen them come alive. She has worked with the likes of WeTransfer, NASA, and Noam Chomsky.
Designing for the Impossible (the name of the keynote), on the surface felt like a circus of experiences. It was as if something was splashing me with cold water to wake me up my tired, oyster-induced hangover of a self. I was hypnotized by zany presentation slides—while simultaneously learning how to modify power structures through the use of experiences. Never in my career have I seen a presentation that had me both mouthing, "WTF" and snapping, "Yas queen."
Disrupting power structures with design
The school of thought around modifying power structures through experience is something Ben Hayoun is borrowing from German philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt. This vision statement is the backbone of Ben Hayoun's "University of the Underground," a transnational post-graduate program. The UofU students are stealth operatives, infiltrating power structures of digital and scientific ecosystems through the use of music, design, film, theater practices, and politics. They teach students how to engineer change and design experiences and events that support social dreaming, action and power shifts within these institutions. They're basically punk rock Navy Seals.
Ok, so all of this sounds super rad, right? But how does this all relate to software and consulting? Ben Hayoun champions the school of critical design, which, in short, is the idea of problem finding over problem-solving. Be proactive versus reactive. A lot of times in product design consulting, your coworkers become a triage team—mending broken endpoints, defibrillating performance issues, and taking vital signs from testing environments. If we as designers do a better job of applying critical design thinking into product delivery, then we could predict problems down the line and build the right thing, not just build the thing right.
Embedding critical thinking in product design
Often at Devbridge, our clients have existing problems they’re trying to solve. As custom software experts, we’re brought in to execute on that vision. There are other scenarios in which we work with clients to find the right problem to solve—which is also true when we’re pitching new work.
A real-world example
During a sales effort for a leading affordable airline, we decided to take a more holistic approach to the problem of airline travel, particularly, the day of travel. Through the use of a small focus group, we were able to identify areas in which a mobile application can help alleviate the stress of travel. We ended up prototyping a notification system to remind the traveler to check in, head to the airport via public transportation, and check out the food court near their gate. In this case, using critical design theory helped us identify problems to solve instead of being reactive to app reviews or other business trends.
Challenge the status quo
As experience designers, we’re constantly trying to change the world through design with the same vigor and idealism as Nelly Ben Hayoun. We start from a place of criticism. We look at power structures in the form of user roles, institutions at large, and the way updates to processes can impact workflows and efficiencies. The same way that Ben Hayoun tackles obstacles at NASA, software designers examine systems and ask, “Why is this product not good and what can we do to change it?”
We are actively practicing critical design theory without even noticing it! Critical design is a natural practice for people who are idealistic and ambitious. Unfortunately, this may not always be realistic or actionable when consulting (clients have input, branding needs, and various guidelines that could impact execution).
The key is to have the foresight to step back and look at the problem at large, the experience itself. It’s when we look at the bigger picture of things that we can affect change and identify pain-points. It’s the core of service design. So, maybe, despite the showmanship of Ben Hayoun, she was making a good point. Aside from jumpsuits being a great fashion choice…Being punk rock and always criticizing the status quo is how we can and will build better products.