A crashcourse in epistemology and a bunch of thoughts on habits and how they relate to design.
Structuring the world around us
Anything in the physical world merely exists without form. But somehow we learn to distinguish forms. The cupboard with the flowers in it become a cupboard, a vase, water and a set of flowers. For a variety of physical phenomenon we learn intuitively that they exist as seperate entities. As with the flowers and the cupboard. For some things, we only learn differentaition via dedictation, such as distinguishing a large variety of birds by studying their anatomy, the sounds they make, the habits they form and we invent names for the different birds. Socrates spoke of ideas. There is an idea of a table and over time we learn how to recignize the idea of tables.
The next thing we typically learn is to make use of these ideas. We learn to use tables as tables. Sometimes we even go beyond the idea of physical occurences. When we use vases to focus sunlight on a particular area on our wall. When we use computers to entertain us instead of letting them “compute” things, when we use a cupboard as desk and the drawers become birdhouses. These extensions of ideas lead to new ideas being formed and used.
At some point, when we have a particular set of physical appearences in our control, we not only lavish ourself in our understanding their idea, but we learn to choose which physical appearance (let’s call them objects for brevity) are useful for a particular task. We want to reach the light bulb and assemble a table and a chair to create a stair. We use our pens to create holes in paper for a mouse-paper-cage. This somewhat introduces the concept of an idea to the concept of utility. What is an idea possibly used for?
If we want to do a specific task very often, instead of using a table and a chair, we might actually build a ladder and make it lighter, easier to store and carry. So we optimize ideas for a particular purpose, generating a new idea and with it a new name and a new object.
Sometimes, we also have the very same object several times at hand but we learned that one object of a series is special. Because it was used by our grandparents. Because it is the first of the series we owned. We add something like personal value attached to the object without altering the idea of the object. Later on, we learn that we share these personal values for some objects and we start to learn about “cultural value”. We suddenly start paying a lot of money for a flat shape with colors on it that someone that lives few hundred years ago arranged on this flat shape and call it culturally and historically relevant art. Something subsconscious leads us the actually regard this piece of art as something personally important and valuable. For some other reasons we may see it as an investment.
Over the course of our lifetime, we learn more and more about how to overload ideas and their representation as objects with things in our head that are not part of the objects.
Managing time in a complex environment
At some point we realize we will not live forever and that our time is scarce. Add this to the idea of narcism and the idea that we should value ourselves and our experience particularly high, we start to thing about how to best use our time. We become experiencers of objects and ideas. If we love ourselves so much that we can’t accept the truth of death, we even start to think about how our lives connect to other people’s live and we might even start reducing the total utility generated from our experiences by creating super-experiences: inventions that we experience others to experience – even after our death. Anyway. The core issue is that we work with limited-time at hand and we maximize something. By the time we start doing this, we typically also understood the idea of focus. That we have a limited focus in each moment in time and that we need to set the focus on a smaller subset of experience around us to get things done. We also learned that our bodies are capable of providing focus in the form of habit formation. So to some extent we learn to simply ignore things that are unncessary to our course – we limit the world we experience by not learning all birdnames and not travelling to each country on this planet – and we learn to minimize the attention effort for doing things in our world that are of lower value to our course: we form habits.
What has all that to do with design thinking?
All this relates to design thinking by understanding that good design is experienced habit formation. What does this mean?
> Design is habit forming: If we use a particular design, we learn to apply a pattern that the design requires us to follow when dealing with the design over and over again.
> Design is imitating habit forming: Habits are formed by assessing a task that we frequently have to do, finding an optimal way to do it, and then doing it over and over again untill we do it blindly. Design must anticipate this process and produce an implied set of actions that are already optimal. So in some sense the process of design thinking is equal to stepping into the shoes of all potential users and let their “habit formation capability” run towards an optimum. In that sense it is an exercise in simulated annealing where each starting point in an iteration is the first experience of a person with the problem.
> Optimal means: Either the solution is new and we create a design that allows to work with the idea in a way that the brightest would learn to work with it. Or it is not new and it blends perfectly into already existing and learned habits.
> Design is experienced habit formation: Design teaches that it is the optimal solution to a problem. It is minimal in representation – it only shows what it needs to show to provide the fully flexibility and choice on the problem at hand – and uses the ideal representation for each its represented functions. Namely, it implies that the trained user that has formed his habits around the design is to him the most effective representations. Most effective meaning most intuitive in use, least impairing by excess rational attention and most accurate given the minimal attention provided to it. This is why a light has to start burning when you open a fridge (good design) and why it should never be the case that you have to move an object to reach another object (why are the panels inside a fridge not coming down when opening the fridge?)
Cheap design vs innovative design
1. Exploitative Design: Ever since Windows-based desktops came into existence, people learned over and over again to move a point in a two-dimensional pane to move from one functionality to the next. They learned how to parallel-task using the concept of visually showing one active task in the front and having a “task bar” where to switch from one task to the next. They did not learn to attach feelings to a state of mind that relates to a problem and switch problem solving intuitiions by changing their emotions. They learned to visually and lazily represent a problem in their mind and organize it using mental windows. So any new design that exploits this already dominant design for managing funtionalities around core objects (a word document, a website, etc.) is exploiting a design that is already learned. It is far easier to have someone adopt your design fast if you copy this design. But at the same time, you need to be crucially aware that your copy of this design already made mankind a step dumber. Good designs don’t only provide a way of solving a problem in a particular mental model, they find the best representation of the problem that implies the easiest habit you can think of irrespective of the time to learn using this habit.
2. Memorable Habits: Products reach the end of their life-cycle and become obsolete. With the product, its design dies. With its design, its particular use and the habit formed around using it. Good designs are memorable. If someone remembers your design, he does so because working with the design was pleasent. It is never the design that is pleasent. Designs can be pretty. But the pleasent experience the design created always focused on the experience of the habit. It is the habit of finding something totally different than the thing you were looking for that makes using Wikipedia particularly pleasent. It is the experience, that we do not lose more time than necessary to find a viable answer when we use Google plus. (There are negative designs, designs that don’t lead to memorable nice experiences but that let us know that any other form of experience around the same task would produce even worse memories. Just use Bing for a day and you understand negative design. Or use the same mobile app from two providers and one where you have to always wait a second longer for the page to load.)
Dominant schools of design – Architecture and habit formation
Architecture is so dominantly affecting the habitualization process in both aesthetic perception and functional representation that it is a pain to watch what modern architecture has produced over the time. Any person that decides to buy and live in a house that it blatantly ugly, too small and providing little functionality because it reduces the cost of living and the energy efficiency of the house is already a victim of inhuman architectural styles and has been stolen true value of his life. Houses and homes must provide the ability to place memories and habits inside them that enrich both productivity and happiness. The very way we build furniture and houses today destroys the entire idea of houses and shelter that it is a question to me why people still decide to live inside buildings and not decide to live on the street after all.
Dominant schools of design – the car industry
What fascinates me in car design is how perfectly the design ideas manage to both keep complexity away from the user and control in the hands of the user. Given the complexity of modern driving systems it is astonishing how well the relevant system state of the car in any given moment is presented to the user in the minimal displays as hand and how well it blends together to have the driver enjoy the feeling that driving is not simply getting from A to B while monitoring the risk to his own personal safetyy in any given time, but how it gives an idea of freedom, self-fullfillment and entertainment. ( I love driving, as you might have noticed.) Compare this the brutal experience you have any time you enter a Gym, or you have to dress up for a basketball game, or you have to walk through a grocery shop, and you can see how good design can make all the difference. At least in my mind, perpetually being confronted with the possibility of imminent death when driving at 180mph on a German highway when wind, rain and a ton of obstacles are all around you appears a lot more frustrating than going the 30 steps way to the super market and waiting in line to pay for a gallon of milk. Does it really need to be part of my habit to buy milk to be feel like I just lost 15 minutes of my life whenever I enter the market?
Tell me what you think about design and how it relates to habits.