It occurs to me this morning that Liz Sanders’s useful/usable/desirable framework is the heart of what could be thought of as a universal design brief.
- Useful: The design satisfies functional needs.
- Usable: The design minimizes functional obstacles.
- Desirable: The design is valuable beyond its function.
The goal of design research is to particularize this brief. Useful how? Usable how? Desirable how?
For me, at least, the most striking thing about such a brief is how poorly language serves its purpose. Perhaps the widest and strangest gap between academic research and design research is the role language plays in the research, especially in its output. Where the end product of academic research is normally a written publication, design research aims at producing a concrete design that users actually experience as useful, usable and desirable. Whatever words produced on the way are only a means to this end, and often design researchers are wise to say as few words as possible, and instead simply influence (in-form?), as directly as possible, the shaping of the design.
Useful is the most linguistically accessible goal. Usefulness can be summarized in terms of explicit functional needs addressable by features. When people think about what is learned in design research, those few people with any inclination and ability to imagine anything distinct typically see a method for uncovering needs. Here words serve us well. We identify a list of “jobs to be done” by the design. Some of these jobs are functional, and others are emotional or social, but all can be stated in words.
This helps explain why “design thinking” focuses most on usefulness. For most people, especially the kind of professionals who get invited to design thinking workshops, thinking is done in words.
Beyond usefulness, however, words help less — or even start to mislead and impede. Beyond the talk of usefulness, where usability and desirability is developed, design craft takes over.
Usable is the goal of removing friction and barriers to use. This should not mean (but all too often does mean) friction and barriers to figuring out how to use something. Figuring out is friction.
The flooding of the design field with non-designers from other disciplines — people who love problem solving, but lack real love of designed artifacts — who don’t notice, appreciate or maybe don’t even expect intimacy with designed artifacts — has caused a serious degradation in our usability expectations. Most designers today stop short at verbal “figure-out-ability”, instead of seeking intuitive usability.
Intuitive usability seeks spontaneous conceiving of the What, How and Why of a system in pre-use encounter, and direct wordless, transparent interaction in use.
Certainly, helpful things can be said about how to make something more usable — general principles of usability do exist — but ultimately, if spontaneous conception and tacit transparency is sought, usability is something that develops experimentally and concretely through an iterative design process. Usability can be indicated and its effect can be described, but usability cannot be encapsulated in speech like usefulness can. Usability is designed into things.
Desirability is the hardest goal. Here we try to create something attractive or compelling in pre-use and intrinsically meaningful in use. We want users to respond favorably to the intrinsic qualities of the artifact when beheld from a distance (when it is present-at-hand) and to experience an unobtrusively noticeable, ambient positivity during use when the artifact is ready-to-hand. Here, the better the design, the more reliably words fail, except maybe poetic words. Desirability is not just associated emotions, and especially not emotional uses (that is only emotional usefulness). Desirability is the je ne sais quois goodness in a design — a quiddity or thusness that makes it, to some degree, lovable. We feel the desirability of things when we feel it, and those who really know the craft of design can produce it reliably, but nobody can say how. Design researchers can help inform this effort, but much of the help is showing, not telling.
I guess I’m doing my usual beating-up-on-words thing again.
I think it is this: In a world that exalts language over craft, abstraction over concreteness, theory over practice — a world where craft must talk its way to the top or languish at the bottom under the micromanagement of talkers — where Thinkers reign over Doers, because obviously this is how things are — life itself is dictated by what is sayable.
Life devolves into features — heaps of What – and the quieter qualities of intuitiveness (How) and desirability (Why) fall by the wayside. What can’t be explicated, argued, listed on a PowerPoint slide drops away into ineffable oblivion.
Overall, life gets more and more useful… while growing less usable, less intuitive and less desirable. Life feels artificial, overwhelming and not worth the effort.
This artificiality seems to us to be the cost of progress. We see no alternative but returning to nature — retrogressing to simpler times.
But design offers an alternative to the A/B choice of progress into artificiality or return to nature.
Design offers second-naturalness.
But to get to an overall second-natural state we need to 1) raise our expectations of what we make for one another, and 2) kick our language supremacy and relearn reverence for craft. The more we can do this, the better chance we will have to instaurate a world that we experience as useful, usable and desirable.
Polycentric design seeks usefulness, usability and desirability for a plurality of actors who interact with things and one another. It seeks systems of mutual benefit, which make the system itself manifestly beneficial.
Do we know how to think in a way that supports acting in a way — making in a way — that supports polycentric design?
Do we actually understand what it takes to accommodate pluralistic mutuality?
Don’t we all sort of assume that all people ought to share our ideals, and that if only they would, that we could finally make progress toward something better? Don’t we think their resistance to what we want is an illegitimate obstacle that ought not exist? And don’t they think that about us?
We don’t want to discuss what ought to go without saying. We are exasperated, offended! We need to move on, make progress.
In design — real design that doesn’t just think design, but does design — this ironing out of mutuality demands things of us that seem unreasonable. The politics of what constitutes progress is the hardest part of making progress! But we want to skip this part, and just make progress as we see it, accusing the other who wants to make a progress toward another ideal (or away from something experienced as undesirable or wrong) as mere obstruction. So pluralism, like design, must not just be thought, but done.
Design is the practice of pluralism. Doing design, doing pluralism, and being unable to escape its terrible demands has forced me out of my head, down into my arms, hands, legs and feet and deep into my own heart. I have been forced to move my body to unfamiliar places, so I can watch how people do things, so I can hear them talk about what they are doing, why they are doing and how they feel about it all, so I can soak up the je ne sais quois of how they decorate, equip and inhabit their environments — and this moves me. I have worked and struggled to come to agreements with my colleagues and clients on what we have learned and how it is significant, and this has rarely been easy. Frequently, we have had to wrestle with perplexity together, to develop tiny, local philosophies to make what we intuit intelligible, thinkable, discussable. This has forced me to learn apprehension tolerance, and the art of summoning goodwill in the midst of angst.
To do these things at commercial velocity, and to survive as the kind of person I want to be, I have had to rethink how I think, rework how I work, redesign how I design — re-enworld myself — over and over again, iteratively.
I am convinced that what prevents us from designing better is our way of thinking. Our manner of thinking, our expectations of thinking — undermines our doing, and our capacity for doing-with — deep forms of collaboration.
We need a philosophy of polycentric design. I’ve made a solid start in designing one. I believe if I can get others to adopt my prototype and collaborate on developing it further, this way of understanding, this designerly way of enworlding ourselves together, could help us align on the kind of progress we would like to make together so we can move past this current dangerous-feeling impasse.