The wisdom of thumbs* – design heuristics

Jean Eugene Robert Houdin

I like to think of design heuristics as rules of thumb. Testing is definitely the surest, cheapest and most interesting way to ensure that the thing you’re building is the thing that the people you’re building it for want. But I think the wisdom of our thumbs is just as important as the wisdom of crowds you might get from testing. Heuristics shape and refine practise. It shouldn’t be a stage in a design process – it’s at the heart of the process.

A designer playing the part of a user

Solutions evolve. I think it’s rare that you come at a problem and have the solution immediately spring to mind. Solving problems takes effort. It also, often takes patience, and experience.

As designers, every decision we make is based on our talents, expertise and experience. From the first time we ‘design’ something we’re contributing to a working ‘play-book’ of strategies that we implement as we solve problems and create solutions. We don’t come to every problem with a ready-made solution – one of my ‘pet peeves’ is people who trot around with a shiny solution desperately looking for a problem to solve with it. But as we grow professionally we all collect a sets of tools.

I like to think of this learning on the job as the wisdom of our thumbs. I think back to school, at the art classes where a teacher suggested I use my thumb and a pencil to judge perspective. Maybe I’m only just starting to realise what he was talking about.

A design isn’t a binary, right and wrong answer. Design is a matter of improvement. We must begin with what we know, take some guesses to teach us how to make it better.

Robert Houdin is dead now. But his life inspired Houdini to adopt his name and left us with the following quote:

a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.

I like this quote. And I think good designers are similarly required to act sometimes. User-centred design asks us to be designers playing the part of the user. If we’re doing this well, throughout every decision we’re not just using our expertise, we’re also considering the experience as if we were the end user. We need to be able to shift perspective as we design.

Design is actually a process of acting. We’re imagining alternative futures, imaginatively experimenting until we hit on a version of tomorrow that is the least worst. Then we think some more and see if we can make it better.

Designers evolve. As we get more experience, our thumbs get wiser. Published methods and techniques often tell the secrets, hard won tips that started out as improvisation in response to a specific circumstance and were found to be better than the original. Techniques therefore evolve as we respond to challenges.

Being creative means we’re not limited to the same set of tools. We can adapt the tool to the current challenge. Expertise implies the ability to synthesise knowledge and make it practicable. An expert will suit the solution to the problem, not try and force things to work the other way around. But even jazz has rules.

This realisation is best acted on by stating some design principles at the start of every project. Write down the principles you’ll have at the back of your head as you work towards a solution. And make sure they are testable. Make sure that you can apply the principle to the designs you create and assess how well it meets the intentions you set off with.

Actors playing a part implies that there are roles for us to play – fine scripts that lead the way to success. We begin with the roles of designer and user prescribed for us, but the alchemy of design is in improvisation.

*This is based on an earlier post that I re-read and decided wasn’t really about what I wanted it to be about – hopefully this is closer to what I was after.

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