What is Fixation?
Fixation is the human tendency to approach a given problem in a set way that limits one’s ability to shift to a new approach to that problem. As such, fixation impairs ideation for designers and results in impasses. It can also cause the Einstellung effect, the phenomenon of overlooking better ways of solving problems.
“Fixation is the way to death. Fluidity is the way to life.”
— Miyamoto Musashi, Strategist, philosopher, writer and founder of a swordsmanship style
See how fixation happens, what it causes and how a matchbox and candle become part of an unexpected solution:
Fixation is a Natural Trap – Long Thinking isn’t always Wrong Thinking
Humans are hard-wired to jump to conclusions, often without realizing we do so. For example, the principle of Occam’s Razor describes how the simplest explanation is usually the correct one – and captures our distrust of convoluted answers. Having such straightforward ways of seeing things is comforting in an ever-changing world. It helps people make sense of new situations far more easily than treating each as an entirely new phenomenon and adopting a beginner’s mind to decode it.
However, design is the wrong setting for this tendency, and fixation is one aspect—or symptom—of insight problems. Fixation is also possibly the most obstructive force in a design process, and “traditional” or “standard” approaches to certain situations can lock designers into a “box” where there’s no clear view of what a new problem truly involves. The first goal is to understand the users’ situation thoroughly; the second is to define/frame the problem accurately – which often means using disruptive tactics such as outside-the-box thinking. Since design problems tend to be complex and successful designs are both useful and novel, it’s vital to be able to stretch beyond existing ways of seeing users, their contexts and their problems. So, innovative designs are not ones you can pull from “the shelf” (i.e., your existing understanding). It usually takes shattering that old frame of reference to get a real grasp of what’s involved.
For example, consider the problem of drawing four straight lines through a nine-dot square without leaving the page.
The two attempts above show how people might approach this problem, which demands—literally—going outside the box (below).
How to Overcome Fixation and Ignite Creativity
Some great ways to avoid/minimize fixation are:
Trust in the Freedom of Scope which a Problem Permits – As opposed to trusting your (or a team-mate’s) initial interpretation of that problem. Bias can creep in all too easily and trap your perspective. The Einstellung effect can also kick in if someone suggests the problem involves factors which aren’t present. Also, the way the problem is explained can itself create fixation, and if a problem statement has the wrong wording or view of your users, the anchoring effect can push your team down the wrong avenues looking for a solution.
Use Out-of-the-Box Thinking – When your problem isn’t “cooperating” with you, push beyond the edges of the design space. Use methods such as brainstorming to work towards a spark of a bright idea.
Stop thinking of Items as having Limited, Dictionary-definition Uses – In our video example, a matchbox serves as a candle holder. You can adapt this concept almost limitlessly by looking beyond the predefined qualities or affordances of anything you might leverage to tackle a problem. Complex problems demand resourcefulness in defining what objects/features get used for.
Believe in the Power of Incubation – To overcome an impasse, stop spinning your wheels. Just follow the stages of creativity and leave the problem so you can return with a fresh view. When you come back, that “Aha!” moment of lightning-bolt-inspired insight may have already struck. Leave it to your subconscious – it’s one of the hardest-working allies you may never get to know.
Beware of Topic Fixation in Ideation Sessions – Your design team may start becoming less receptive to other lines of thinking if several dominant ideas surface, especially early on. This can be hard to spot and manage, and more extroverted or outspoken team-mates may guide the threads of discussion down these narrow alleyways. The risk is everyone will tacitly accept these as the likeliest pathways to the best solutions rather than limiting factors of fixation – and shut off from considering other, better ways forward.
Remember, Old Solutions were once Novel Ones which Innovators found for Their Own, Unique Problems – It’s natural for our minds to try for comparisons as convenient yardsticks to measure with. A popular strategy in documentaries, etc., is to use analogies to make old concepts more relevant to modern audiences. However, a risk of bridging to earlier ideas is overlooking some insights and contemporary factors – e.g., the Inca Trail as “the Internet of the time” (early 1500s). So, while analogies to other situations/problems might be helpful, understand the limitations of old solutions vis-à-vis your problem’s uniqueness. A good remedy is to try pushing the boundaries in a new direction using divergent thinking methods such as random metaphors.
Overall, remember that fixation is about framing. Only you can control how you approach finding, defining and starting to search for solutions to your users’ exact problems.
Learn More about Fixation
Take our Creativity course, addressing fixation: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/creativity-methods-to-design-better-products-and-services
Fast Company incisively addresses fixation and offers many helpful tips: https://www.fastcompany.com/3044535/what-is-design-fixation-and-how-can-you-stop-it
This workshop account explores design fixation extensively: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0142694X17300030
Literature on Fixation
Here’s the entire UX literature on Fixation by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Learn more about Fixation
Take a deep dive into Fixation with our course Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services .
The overall goal of this course is to help you design better products, services and experiences by helping you and your team develop innovative and useful solutions. You’ll learn a human-focused, creative design process.
We’re going to show you what creativity is as well as a wealth of ideation methods―both for generating new ideas and for developing your ideas further. You’ll learn skills and step-by-step methods you can use throughout the entire creative process. We’ll supply you with lots of templates and guides so by the end of the course you’ll have lots of hands-on methods you can use for your and your team’s ideation sessions. You’re also going to learn how to plan and time-manage a creative process effectively.
Most of us need to be creative in our work regardless of if we design user interfaces, write content for a website, work out appropriate workflows for an organization or program new algorithms for system backend. However, we all get those times when the creative step, which we so desperately need, simply does not come. That can seem scary—but trust us when we say that anyone can learn how to be creative on demand. This course will teach you ways to break the impasse of the empty page. We'll teach you methods which will help you find novel and useful solutions to a particular problem, be it in interaction design, graphics, code or something completely different. It’s not a magic creativity machine, but when you learn to put yourself in this creative mental state, new and exciting things will happen.
In the “Build Your Portfolio: Ideation Project”, you’ll find a series of practical exercises which together form a complete ideation project so you can get your hands dirty right away. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.
Your instructor is Alan Dix. He’s a creativity expert, professor and co-author of the most popular and impactful textbook in the field of Human-Computer Interaction. Alan has worked with creativity for the last 30+ years, and he’ll teach you his favorite techniques as well as show you how to make room for creativity in your everyday work and life.
You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.