“Precision inspiration”

When people ask me what design research is, my favorite answer is “precision inspiration”.

I know this might seem slightly business romantic, but my meaning is exact, clear, concrete — even a bit technical.


I’ll start by explaining what research is pragmatically, in terms of what it does. And because I’m a business guy, I’ll explain what it does in terms of its benefits. In other words, I’ll start with a sales pitch.

First, design research helps inform decisions. It helps teams identify opportunities for improvements. It helps us understand what should be improved, why that improvement will matter to people and how the improvement ought to be made so that the work has its intended effect. Design research helps organizations “design the right thing, and to design the thing right.” Research improves the product.

Second, design research also provides persuasive evidence that helps leaders align organizations around particular projects. If everyone in an organization is persuaded that a project is worthwhile, energy otherwise wasted arguing for following divergent paths — or even taking those paths and working at cross-purposes — is applied forcefully in a single direction. And morale-sapping doubts about the project can be quelled, so participants can invest real energy into the project, in the expectation that their efforts will produce a positive outcome. Design research done well is organizational alignment magic. Research improves the efficiency of production.

Design research also drastically improves team dynamics and helps them collaborate more effectively and enjoyably. By introducing the scientific method into design processes, it brings enlightenment values to the notoriously authoritarian milieu of the workplace. Instead of uninformed speculations and untested intuitions (the products of private imaginations, prejudices, preconceptions and biases) competing to prove that it possesses esoteric insights into the souls of The User or The Customer and therefore has the answer on what solution to build, everyone is free (or freer) to propose questions to ask and hypotheses to test with real people, in order to assess the degree of validity in everyones’ ideas and hunches. The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable. And the output of the research typically partially validates multiple views in ways requiring new combinations. So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others, and ultimately the idea can only be said to originate in the entire team working together on a shared problem. Research improves the experience of production, which gets us closer to the climax of my pitch, the inspiration part.

The inspiration of design research comes from how it can helps us reconceive what we are doing, how we are doing it and why it matters. This is important, because our repertoire of concepts enable and constrain what we think, believe, imagine, invent. They also shape our perceptions and help us ask clear questions. The limits of our conceptions are the limits of our minds, and our ability to take intelligent action. In the most productive research, new concepts are learned directly from participants in the research, in the process of understanding their worldviews. Yet more concepts must be found/made (or instaurated) to make sense of the full range of concepts learned and link them to the conceptual tools of the various disciplines collaborating on a solution. This can rarely be done with the available stock of existing concepts, so in effect each team are forced to create a new concept system — a small, local philosophy tailored to the project — that makes the problem intelligible and soluble.

This is an arduous, perplexing and anxious process. Not all people have the intellectual flexibility, faith and fortitude to do it. But when it is done successfully, new possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo, that were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas resulting from the acquisition of new concepts is in fact what inspiration is.

The novel ideas produced by research are far less obvious and far more relevant (because they were acquired through understanding users or customers) than ideas produced by industry conventional wisdom that, because it processes the same old facts the same old way, produces nothing but the same old same-old, safe, stale, predictable, undifferentiated ideas.

Deep, rigorous, courageous research is the most effective and reliable way to induce such precision inspiration.


1 thought on ““Precision inspiration”

  1. Great write-up! It clarifies precision inspiration (which I keep mistakenly calling precision innovation) tremendously. I love this description in particular: “But when [reconceptualization] is done successfully, new possibilities pop into existence, ex nihilo, that were literally inconceivable before. This sudden influx of possibilities and outpouring of novel ideas resulting from the acquisition of new concepts is in fact what inspiration is”.

    However, I’d like to ask for even more clarification on a few points [I’m never satisfied :) ].

    First, you discuss inspiration quite a bit, but you don’t explicitly use the term ‘precision’ in your description. I think this phrase (“a small, local philosophy tailored to the project”) is related to precision, but it would be clearer if the write-up explicitly related the two. Bonus points for clarifying whether precision inspiration can be too precise, ie the precision philosophy is a bit too narrowly targeted at just one problem instead of a close-knit family of problems.

    Second, You make quite clear that the inspiration in ‘precision inspiration’ is generated by precision reconceptualization. I’m not suggesting a rename–I find the term ‘precision inspiration’ inspiring. However, by not putting the concept of reconceptualization in the label ‘precision inspiration’, it raises the risk that a team might attempt to go straight from the research phase to creating the artifact design(s), without creating the “new concept system”/microphilosophy/local-philosophy. I suggest highlighting this risk, since so many seem to fall prey to it: if all you get out of a design session is a redesigned artifact (with no new concept system that shaped it), you’re doing it wrong.

    Third, I don’t understand this claim: “The stakes are lower and cheaper, so democratic participation is more affordable.” Why does having more people participate make the stakes lower and cheaper? IME, trying to get deep participation from a broader group of very busy stakeholders is more costly, at least in terms of time investment, than having a solo design “genius” do it themselves. It’s definitely worth the extra investment. But you seem to be saying it’s more affordable to do it with a group of stakeholders. Could you please clarify? I almost feel that you should be saying the opposite: precision inspiration costs more, and is more painful, but the outcomes are more than worth it.

    Fourth, the name for the “new concept system” is characterized with a bunch of different labels/metaphors: small, local, tailored, micro, philosophy, concept-system. I think it would help clarify things by choosing an official label (as you’ve done with ‘precision inspiration’) for this thing. I suggest the label ‘precision philosophy’, so that it parallels ‘precision inspiration’. I think it’s important for your overall project of unifying design and philosophy to label it a philosophy, not just a ‘concept system’. And I think ‘precision’ connotes micro, local, and small. It also makes it easier to distinguish ‘precision philosophy’ (good) with ‘systematic philosophy’ (bad).

    Finally, and most difficultly, it would be amazing if you could clarify to some degree the magic in all this. While the new precision philosophy FEELS like it “pop[s] into existence, ex nihilo”, there’s got to be more guidance than that. In particular, it would help if you said more about the division of ingenious labor: “So ingenuity is contributed from more sources and woven together ingeniously by yet others”. I’m assuming the “yet others” are the designers. What goes on in the “weaving” process, and is that even the right metaphor, since reconceptualization requires some degree of unraveling/reweaving (aka deconstruction/reconstruction) by the “yet others”.

    I know this is a tall order, because everyone else who discusses “abnormal” phases only waves their hands. Kuhn never really clarifies how a new scientific theory is woven during abnormal science; Rorty never clarifies how edifying philosophy does its weaving during abnormal discourse. Actually I think the person who makes the most sustained effort to analyze this magic phenomenon is Donald Schon, in his book “Displacement of Concepts”. He calls it “frame restructuring”, and he analyzes several concrete examples, eg the metaphor of a paintbrush being a pump.

    Again, great progress, and I can’t wait to discuss further!

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