Product design and your impact

I’ve written before about how I think about and talk about design. While in general I find it important to be specific about the practice you’re doing, there are some broader definitions that are useful.

One that occurred to me this morning: The first act of product design is deciding what effect you want to have in the world.

This definition sidesteps the distinction between solving problems and cultural impact, and focuses not on the product but on the opportunity.

We live in a fascinating time, where with new tools we have the power to build almost anything. Meanwhile, design practice is emerging in many disciplines and fields. The question is then less about “what should we build” and more about “why should we build?” Make sure you know your answer.

Future strangers

Couched in an article about procrastination is this fascinating study result:

Using fMRI, Hershfield and colleagues studied brain activity changes when people imagine their future and consider their present…their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman.

If our future selves are truly strangers to us, that affects how we design behavior change and plan for the future. We need to build empathy with ourselves the same ways we build it with others–through trying new experiences, challenging our beliefs, and cultivating curiosity about the unknown. This points to an experiential futures approach to design, as well as a need for individual, interactive tools for people to explore their own possible futures. And it suggests that successful approaches will address the emotional side of decisions as much or more than rational thoughts.

It’s an important aspect to consider when designing the future. After all, the next stranger you encounter could be…you!

Science Fiction and Social Fiction

We have science fiction, and science follows it. We imagine it, and it comes true. Yet we don’t have social fiction, so nothing changes. – Muhammad Yunus

A nice quote, and a good motivator, though I do think we have a couple types of social fiction.

Types of stories

All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. – Leo Tolstoy

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. – Joseph Campbell

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth – Christopher Booker

Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and the Man-Who-Learns-Better – Robert Heinlein

And many, MANY more

The problem with the future

Faster horses and tone-deaf designers

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse – Henry Ford (allegedly)

This quote has always bothered me. Not only is it dismissive of customer input, but I’ve seen it misused terribly by a wide range of people, who cite it as an excuse to ignore other people and design whatever they want. So it was with great delight that I found this marvelous debunking of the “quote” and the philosophy behind it.

Let me dispel with the suspense; it doesn’t appear that Henry Ford ever actually uttered this famous and polarizing phrase. We have no evidence that Ford ever said those words…

However, even if Ford didn’t verbalize his thoughts on customers’ ostensible inability to communicate their unmet needs for innovative products — history indicates that Henry Ford most certainly did think along those lines — his tone-deafness to customers’ needs (explicit or implicit), had a very costly and negative impact on the Ford Motor Company’s investors, employees, and customers.

Futurism vs fiction

In science fiction, the imagined world supports the story; in futurism, the story supports the imagined world.

It’s a simple but crucial difference, and one that too many casual followers of foresight work miss. If a futurist scenario reads like bad science fiction, it’s because it is bad science fiction, in the sense that it’s not offering the narrative arc that most good pieces of literature rely upon. And if the future presented in a science fiction story is weak futurism, that’s not a surprise either — as long as the future history helps to make the story compelling, it’s done its job.

Futurists and science fiction writers often “talk shop” when they get together — but fundamentally, their jobs are very, very different. – Jamais Cascio

How to know

“Never delegate understanding” – Charles Eames

Just get started

“The muse visits during the act of creation, not before” – Roger Ebert

The impossible and the improbable

Some good guidance on which technique to use depending on what you want to say:

It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction the improbable made possible; fantasy the impossible made probable. – Rod Serling