What is Incrementalism?
Incrementalism is an approach designers use to address large problems. Doing incremental design, they wait for a chance to take small steps toward a known goal and win community support. Designers learn from and modify these interventions to match the current situation instead of investing in high-risk grand solutions.
“The day the product team is announced, it is behind schedule and over its budget.”
— Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience” (Norman’s Law, from The Design of Everyday Things)
See why incrementalism works best for tricky, real-world problems.
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Improvised Tube Well Filter for feeding Cattle pasture water pump (File:Schotten Rudingshain Cattle Pasture pump s.png) near Rudingshain, Schotten, Hesse, Germany by UuMUfQ (CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0)
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Big Problems actually demand Little Steps
It can seem counterintuitive to address big issues this way, but the world is far too complex to afford designers the luxury of producing grand solutions that might — at least theoretically — fix its serious problems. Apart from the massive expense and disruption that such remedies involve, there’s another problem: time. We can’t hit “pause” on the rest of the world while we design miracle cures in a vacuum.
Cognitive science and usability engineering expert Don Norman considers 21st century design the way for designers to tackle the world’s biggest and most important challenges — such as poverty, hunger and unequal access to healthcare. These important challenges are difficult to solve because they involve complex interconnected systems that feed back and forth between one another. Furthermore, as humans, we’re designed to understand simple cause-and-effect chains instead of approaching feedback loops insightfully. For example, poverty is often the cause of many other large socio-technical problems, but what about the many factors that feed into — and from — it that keep the vicious cycle going? Designers face such complex socio-technical systems, which, like wicked problems, are:
Difficult to define.
Difficult to know how to approach.
Difficult to know whether a solution has worked.
Associate Professor of Economics at Yale University Charles E. Lindblom’s article “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” appeared in 1959. Although it focused on the policy-formulation approach of the U.S. executive bureaucracy, Lindblom’s work contains a kernel of truth for designers; Avoid applying grand solutions to big problems. Not only are these obscenely expensive; they also end up disrupting too many people’s lives. Moreover, big problems are — like other moving targets — hard to hit. And by the time you’d be ready with a grand solution, too much would have changed, anyway: the situation, the culture of the people you’re trying to help, even the problem itself. That’s why the principles of human-centered design are invaluable, and incrementalism is central to the last one: Small & Simple Interventions.
How to Use Incremental Design to edge towards Good Solutions
Make the best of the situation and use human- or humanity-centered design:
Be people-centered. Live among the people you want to help, to understand the true nature of the issues they face, their ways of seeing these, and any attempts they’ve made to solve them. For example, your population might be malnourished and can’t use all their farmland because of ill-marked landmine fields from an old civil war.
Solve the right problem. Deeply examine the factors driving the people’s problems. Try the 5 Whys approach. The landmines might seem to be the root cause, but they might be symptoms of something else that runs deeper (e.g., longstanding group factionalism). So, in this case you might suggest farming alternatives, to feed the people sustainably so they can work towards progress. For example, might they grow food hydroponically (i.e., in water containers) until demining efforts clear the land properly?
See everything as a system. Use systems thinking to untangle as many parts of the problem(s) as possible. Complex socio-technical systems demand hard investigation and working alongside experts and, principally, the people you intend to help. Community-driven design is crucial for finding optimal solutions within the system(s) involved.
Now, take the first steps towards a real solution:
Wait for the opportunity to do a small test of the small-scale solution you’ve co-created with the community. E.g., Build hydroponic farms in old, unused buildings using repurposed mirrors and solar panels.
If it’s successful, evaluate the degree of success; then adapt and modify it or repeat it several times. If it fails, learn from the experience to guide yourself towards the known goal. E.g., you introduce more cheap-to-grow crops in two more improvised hydroponic farms.
If it keeps succeeding, you’ll gain more community support and find you/they can achieve even more. E.g., the community can start selling their surplus crops.
Over time, monitor outcomes and modify the approach as needed. E.g., the hydroponic farms win government support, and demining efforts improve to help clear the way for safe farmland again.
Divide big problems extensively and be patient for the best chance to take the best small-level action.
Work with the local community leaders and listen carefully to their views about everything.
Check if some of the community’s existing solutions are salvageable or modifiable.
Remember, low-tech solutions are typically cheap and easy to build, understand, use and maintain.
Move slowly; let the results speak for themselves to the community, government agencies and beyond.
Learn More about Incrementalism & Incremental Design
Take our 21st Century Design course: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-for-the-21st-century
Read more about incrementalism from Don Norman, here: https://jnd.org/community-and-domain-experts/
This UX Design World piece offers fascinating insights from another angle: https://uxdworld.com/2019/08/20/incremental-design/
Literature on Incrementalism
Here’s the entire UX literature on Incrementalism by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Learn more about Incrementalism
Take a deep dive into Incrementalism with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .
User experience, or UX, has been a buzzword since about 2005, and according to tech research firm Gartner, the focus on digital experience is no longer limited to digital-born companies anymore. Chances are, you’ve heard of the term, or even have it on your portfolio. But, like most of us, there’s also a good chance that you sometimes feel unsure of what the term “user experience” actually covers.
[User experience] is used by people to say, ‘I’m a user experience designer, I design websites’, or ‘I design apps.’ […] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! It’s everything—it’s the way you experience the world, it’s the way you experience your life, it’s the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But it’s a system that’s everything.”
— Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term “user experience”, in an interview with NNGroup
As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers a number of different areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of what those areas are so that you know what tools are available to you.
Throughout this course, you will gain a thorough understanding of the various design principles that come together to create a user’s experience when using a product or service. As you proceed, you’ll learn the value user experience design brings to a project, and what areas you must consider when you want to design great user experiences. Because user experience is an evolving term, we can’t give you a definition of ‘user experience’ to end all discussions, but we will provide you with a solid understanding of the different aspects of user experience, so it becomes clear in your mind what is involved in creating great UX designs.
If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and with a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.
If You Don’t fail, You’re Not Trying Hard Enough
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