Expert/Rapid/Special Forces Design (was: Yet Another iPod Birth Story)
On Oct 18, 2006, at 11:59 AM, Dan Saffer wrote:
> On Oct 18, 2006, at 7:24 AM, James Leftwich, IDSA wrote:
> > Hmmmm... I guess I don't know why you're so skeptical about what
> > Leander Kahney's reported here, Dan. It matches everything I've
> > heard from people who've talked to the same group of people
> > in the article.
> I'm skeptical mostly because of the click wheel, which wasn't (and
> still isn't) a very standard component in devices. And I'm certain
> we're all aware that the same components can be assembled in many
> different ways. Witness the proliferation of mobile phone form
> factors, all from very similar components. Very few things,
> especially a thing as nicely done as the iPod, simply snaps together.
> The article made it seem easy, and I bet it wasn't.
I read the article and interpreted it to say that the form factor was
pretty straightforward, and this matched what I'd heard through a
short grapevine. Pus the fact that while a wide variety of shapes
were possible, Apple has a (recent) history of using fairly
rectalinear form factors. I'm sure they SLA'ed a number of form
prototypes, but in the end, the form of the initial iPod followed
very close the componentry, in the simplest and smallest form
factor. I'm not sure that they were implying the activities involved
in doing that were "easy," but simply that that particular collection
of components pointed to a fairly straightforward general form factor
More on this notion of "what's easy" later, in context to some other
issues involved here (which will go beyond the individual case of the
iPod and its design origins).
> > What I do think this thread is probably going to open up a
> > of, however, is the schism that exists between those who know that
> > designers can sometimes, with a good deal of confidence, make fast,
> > decisive design efforts that are likely to solve a number of
> > and achieve success as products - and those that want to suggest
> > such efforts, are at best, lucky guesses.
> > Not every problem or unfulfilled need out there requires massive
> > research efforts. Despite your, um, interesting linguistic
> > in labeling these types of efforts, "genius design."
> I wasn't suggesting you have to be a genius to practice what I call
> "genius design" (although it helps!) The term for me means a type of
> design that is done just as you describe here: relying on the
> experience and intuition of the designer to make the necessary design
> decisions. It's how most design is done, I'd argue. Perhaps "genius"
> was the wrong word, but I wanted something to convey the internal and
> intuitive nature of the method.
> > In my opinion, it's largely the Interaction Design community that
> > doesn't understand this. Or at least a large segment of the
> > community.
> The IxD community has emphasized UCD practices for a decade now. You
> could argue over-emphasized. Which is why I put four approaches to
> interaction design (UCD, activity-centered design, systems design,
> and genius design) in my book.
Let me elaborate a bit on why I find this set of issues to be a
complex and problematic area of terminology, philosophy,
interpretation, and approach in our diverse field of Interaction
Design... I want to start by saying I don't want to unnecessarily
argumentative, because I find your book and ideas to be incredibly
valuable resources to our community. I'm commenting here, and
strongly, because I think our discipline needs to have a much more
out-in-the-open discussion of exactly what constitutes alternative
approaches to Interaction Design from the UCD/Academic approaches
that have held hegemony for so many years.
But I also come from a very different, more product-centric portion
of the field, as well as the individual or small team consultancy
aimed at lots of very niche areas of product and system development.
These areas have many aspects that differ from the web, web
application, desktop software, and other areas of Interaction Design
that comprise much of what's done and discussed in the field.
First off, in your book, you list four different approaches. User
Centered Design, Activity-Based Design, Systems Design, and "what you
call Genius Design."
I think the term "Genius Design" is among the most unfortunate and
misleading terms that could've been chosen.
I question the terminology and linguistics of this approach to
design, which I would term (and argue is more accurate) "Special
Forces" or "Rapid," or "Expert" design. I do agree with your primary
point in your book that designers use a mix of these, often varying
the degree or ratio of one or more of these approaches. Most
designers, myself included, use a mixture of approaches. But in many
cases, it's heavily weighted toward this fourth category, and it need
not necessarily be a bad thing, a reluctant thing, or something to
But first to tackle the linguistics. A number of us in the field
have historically had to approach complex design problems (large and
complex systems, short development timeframes, limited budgets, small
staffs or having to do things individually), and this shapes
different types of strategies and builds different bodies of
experience and judgement. Nobody I know who practices to a large
extent the type of design you characterize as "genius design," would
ever characterize it as such.
Many people will easily claim they practice "User Centered
Design," (I'd argue all good user experiences are designed with the
user in mind. I'm reminded of groups that call themselves something
like "Concern Americans In Favor Of Freedom" etc.), and the same goes
for "Activity-Based Design," and the methods of "Systems Design."
But surely nobody would try to advertise their services of being able
to come into complex situations and effect significant and effective
design solutions by saying they practice, "Genius Design."
So I find this a misleading and, in a certain sense, dismissive
terminology. It colors and prejudices an approach that's not at all
based on a practitioner's "genius," though in agreement with you, I'd
say that in all fields, talent and smarts are a real benefit. But
what we're really talking about in this approach to design is not
whatsoever, as you claim in your book, "the easiest way" to approach
things. (You say many people take this approach because it's,
It's not simply that UCD practices have been been emphasized for a
decade now. (I'd argue that it goes back farther than that, even if
it wasn't labeled that). If these practices were only being held up
as *a* model, instead of often *the,* *the only,* or *the best*
model, that would be great. But the fact is, going back to the late
1980s, (and we're coming up on the seventeenth anniversary of BayCHI,
which I was a part of from its early beginnings), researchers and
academics didn't just advocate a UCD-type approach to design. They
often, and still, have overlooked, denigrated, mischaracterized,
undervalued, and otherwise dissed the types of expert design
approaches that you, roughly, lump into the "genius design" category.
Over the past twenty years a number of terms have been used for
pejorative effect, "Cowboy," "Lone Wolf," "Dictator looking to impose
a personal vision," etc. in ways to denigrate and devalue what a
growing number of practitioners recognize as a complex set of expert
and experienced practices and applications of judgement. What these
quasi-strawmen terms, like "genius design," do however, is obscure
the wide variety of expertise that goes into the best and most
successful examples of this alternative type of approach. An
approach that's actually much better matched to the existing
constraints of many real world projects, products, systems, and
Sure, there are plenty of efforts which could be considered to fall
under your "genius design" category which could very well be
characterized as lazy efforts, unintegrated kludges, lipstick-on-the-
pig efforts, etc.. But holding these up as exemplary of non-UCD (or
other academically blessed) approaches does a grave disservice to the
enormous field of products, systems, and services that would benefit
by Special Forces or Rapid Design or Expert Design efforts.
Lone practitioners and small expert teams do not practice an easy
craft or set of methods. Parachuting into chaotic, and sometimes
even hostile situations with outrageously complex sets of
stakeholders, functionality, integration, and achieving successful
and integrated design solutions - is anything but easy or simple.
But it's not magic, and not limited to just the few we can dismiss as
"geniuses." It's an alternative and additional approach that can be
studied and applied by more designers.
The skills and experiences necessary to do this type of design are no
more mysterious than those that are most often described and
advocated (such as UCD research and approaches), yet they are best
learned in the real world, and through experience and teaming with
more experienced practitioners. In your book you say that it's
often, unfortunately, beginners or experienced people that practice,
"genius design." This is true in one sense, but overlooks the fact
that it's only through real experiences that one can gain expert
knowledge and judgement, and the ability to cross-pollinate (sensible
or successfully recontextualized aspects of) models from one product
or system domain to another. An example of how this has been done
poorly in the past has involved taking desktop GUIs and trying to
move them (sometimes without adequate recontextualizing and change)
over to small, mobile devices.
The bottom line of what I'm stating for the broad Interaction Design
community is that beyond what's talked about, written about, lectured
about, and held out as UCD/Academic/Researcher dogma lies an entirely
different continent of experiences, strategies, models, and
approaches to successful outcomes. They're not (necessarily, or
just) accidents, lucky guesses, strokes of genius, easy ways out, or
monuments to individual ego.
Back in 1998 I read a very excellent article in SCIENCE NEWS, "Seeing
through expert eyes: ace decision makers may perceive distinctive
worlds - intuition and experience in decision-making"
I highly recommend people read this informative article.
It gives an excellent overview into studies of how experts make rapid
and "intuitive" decisions in complex situations. I think it's no
less applicable to Interaction Design than it is to firefighting, or
Our field deserves a much more serious examination of the many
alternative and equally valid and successful models of approaching
design. Particularly given that our world is full of countless
products, systems, and services that will never have the budgets,
timeframes, and human resources to approach them via oft-described-
and-trumpeted UCD methodologies.
As Marc Rettig put it so well, many of us in the design field
(practitioners and otherwise) are often fully occupied by our work to
stop and deconstruct our internalized methods and expertise. But I
have to say, I chafe when I read alternative design approaches given
short shrift, inadequate descriptions, or are outright denigrated.
But I say all of this with a great deal of respect for your book and
efforts to provide an overview for our field. I hope that our field
will become inclusive enough to acknowledge the validity of and
adequately describe what's really involved in other successful,
alternative design methods and approaches.