Incrementalism

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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.

  • Complex systems.

  • 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.Incrementalism is central to the fourth principle of Human-Centered Design, Small & Simple Interventions. The other principles are People-Centered, Solve the Right Problem, and Everything is a System.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

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.

Tips:

  • 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.

A tree-lined street with houses on one side, and a partial view of a stone staircase on the other side.

Learn More about Incrementalism & Incremental Design

For more on incrementalism, take our courses:

Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

Read more about incrementalism from Don Norman on JND.org.

This UX Design World piece offers fascinating insights from another angle.

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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 Design for a Better World with Don Norman .

“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”

— Don Norman, Design for a Better World

Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:

  • Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.

  • Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.

  • Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.

  • Widespread misinformation that undermines education.

All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.

Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.

This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.

In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.

In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.

In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.

Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.

You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.

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