Effective system design requires insights drawn from serious contexts of use

Scrappy prototypes are great: they allow scrappy iteration and quick evaluation. But many critical insights will only emerge in the context of a serious creative problem that’s not about the system itself. This is a key claim of Insight through making.

That sounds like standard practice: of course systems have to be evaluated! But most system designers don’t take “serious” seriously. Academics evaluate their systems in artificial settings with artificial data. Startups fool themselves by working with early adopters mostly interested in playing with new technologies. Deep down, such system designers are generally developing a system for its own sake—not because there’s some creative problem they’re desperately trying to solve.

Observing how your theories (represented in systems) interact with reality can yield insights which help improve your theories. The character of those insights will depend on the context in which the system was used. If the system isn’t used seriously, the insights will be more like those which a pure theorist could have seen. Those were possible without actually building a system.

Pixar’s a good example of an organization which creates serious contexts of use, which in turn drive system design: Pixar’s movies and technology development act as coupled flywheels.

One common challenge here is that Great tool-makers are often not great tool-users, and vice-versa.

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References

Matuschak, A., & Nielsen, M. (2019). How can we develop transformative tools for thought? Retrieved December 2, 2019, from https://numinous.productions/ttft