If You Don’t Fail, You’re Not Trying Hard Enough
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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)
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.
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.
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/
Here’s the entire UX literature on Incrementalism by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into Incrementalism with our course Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman .
In this course, taught by your instructor, Don Norman, you’ll learn how designers can improve the world, how you can apply human-centered design to solve complex global challenges, and what 21st century skills you’ll need to make a difference in the world. Each lesson will build upon another to expand your knowledge of human-centered design and provide you with practical skills to make a difference in the world.
“The challenge is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce positive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is successful, and that customers love. It can be done.”
— Don Norman