Monday, October 19, 2009

Design Thinking

>> BCN Design Week Campaign

It’s extremely difficult to exist in Barcelona without noticing some element of design every few minutes – a striking poster, a network of walkways around a park, a coiled stack of churros. But as if that wasn’t enough, Barcelona has its own Design Week, and this year it happens to be at the end of October (what luck!). Among the many Design Week events is a conference on “design thinking.” I’ve run into this term before, usually equating it with “the thought process of a designer”. But what does that mean? Can we really find a “typical” way of thinking in the world of design? I decided this concept was worth a bit more research.

As it turns out, “design thinking” involves much more than the mind of the designer, and may actually challenge our very notion of design. As Tim Brown notes in his new book “Change by Design”, design thinking is an interactive, collaborative, nonlinear, human-centered approach to solving problems. It’s a move away from intellectual exercise to actual experience, as well as a change from design-by-designers to design-by-all. Or, more accurately, design-from-all. The notion that good design must be achieved by the expert who knows how to apply all the rules is replaced by the idea that good design comes from many people (the more the better) and rules are just barriers to innovation.

This all sounds very abstract, but the applications of design thinking are real, and pretty exciting. Rather than limiting design to making things more attractive or easier to use, design thinking encompasses a much broader range of approaches, ideas, and systems to make a better human experience. Brown gives an example of a Japanese bike company that wanted to try something new to jumpstart a lagging business. Instead of starting with the bike (adding specialized features, developing a slick new look) it considered the experience of bike riding. Many people have fond childhood memories of riding a bicycle. But the majority of them keep these memories stored away alongside the dusty, unused bikes in their basement. Why don't more adults ride bikes? A team of designers, marketers, engineers and social scientists worked together to answer this question. They identified several real concerns that kept adults away from bikes: anxiety about entering a professional bike store, confusion about the many bike accessories and parts, worries about safety on the road. Designing a better looking bike was not going to help – this team decided they needed to develop a new, simple bike riding experience. The end result was an innovative “coasting” bike that hid an automatic gear-shifting technology in a basic bike framework – no confusing handlebar controls or cables. Advertising campaigns included phrases like: “Chill. Explore. Dawdle. Lolygag. First one there’s a rotten egg.” The company even worked with local communities to post safe riding routes on the web. The coasting bike was hugely popular. This project was not just a bike re-design, it was design thinking applied to bike riding – and its success shows just how powerful this type of thinking can be.

The implications of design thinking could be immensely helpful as we go about solving other human-centered problems like health care, education, or security. Taking a step back from small-scale objects to community (or global) experiences may be the only way we can begin to move forward on these very critical issues.

More on design thinking after the conference...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't eat egg salad from a vending machine.

Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food), who’s written a lot about nutrition science and the politics of food, now gives us something with a more home-style flavor: personal food rules from real people (mom’s advice, from real moms). He’s collected these bits of “food wisdom” from hundreds of submissions and will publish them as part of a book in January. Until then, here are a few of his favorites:

“Eat foods in inverse proportion to how much money its lobby spends to push it.”

“Never eat something that is pretending to be something else.”

“It’s not food if it comes to you through the window of a car.”

“If a bug won’t eat it, why would you?”

“If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are not hungry.”

“Avoid snack foods with the “oh” sound in their names: Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Hostess Ho Hos, etc.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Liberals and Conservatives – A Moral Difference?

I tend to like debate. I see discourse as fundamentally human and critical to any functioning society. Which is why I am so disappointed with debates in which two sides seem to be talking right past each other – each trying desperately to engage with a brick wall. Aspects of the current debate on health care seem to exemplify this type of standstill, particularly surrounding issues that deal with the boundaries of human life. Jonathan Haidt addresses this problem in a recent TED interview, where he explains that liberals tend to take a more materialist and utilitarian view of life, seeing nothing inherently wrong with abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and stem cell research. Many conservatives, on the other hand, tend to place a higher value on the sacredness of life, and will see these practices as abhorrent and profoundly immoral. Because of the different emphasis placed on sanctity, liberals and conservatives each see the other side as making outrageous claims or just missing the point. But Haidt doesn’t stop at health care – he has an entire theory about the differences between liberal and conservative thinking, and relates it back to fundamental differences in moral sentiments.

(Side note: I acknowledge that I’m using broad terms that by no means accurately represent all conservatives or liberals. Haidt certainly does this as well. I do think, however, that at the risk of simplification, such generalizations can be useful in understanding some dimensions of political debate.)

Intrigued by anyone claiming to have a grand theory of morality, I read more about Haidt’s work in moral psychology. His “Moral Foundations Theory” is as follows: there are five psychological foundations (or intutions) that provide the basis of human morality. He labels them harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. These foundations are not rigid determinants of morality, but they do place constraints on the range of human virtues that can be easily learned and cultivated. The extent to which they are valued and taught can vary greatly between different cultures – likened to tastebuds, these moral foundations are universal, but each society can have different “tastes”. Therefore, some societies may place much greater emphasis on virtues that protect the group, like subordination, obedience, and duty.  In these societies the loyalty and authority intuitions are much stronger. Other societies may build up a morality based more heavily on protecting individuals; in these societies the care and fairness intuitions are stronger.

Haidt takes this five-dimensional view of morality and uses it to explain many political disagreements in the US, mapping political liberals and political conservatives onto his system. In a series of surveys he asked participants to answer a set of moral judgment questions and identify which concerns were the most relevant to their decision. After matching up their responses with their self-rated political orientation (from extremely conservative to extremely liberal), Haidt observed an emerging pattern. Liberals in general rated care and fairness as their two main concerns, while conservatives tended to see all five moral foundations as highly relevant. The more extreme the political orientation, the more acute this difference.  In essence, liberals have a narrower focus to their morality than that of conservatives – individual rights and social justice take up most of their moral domain. Conservatives place additional value on the moral foundations that maintain order, provide stability, and bind the community together, and so their morality is more expansive.

Thus, as Haidt goes on to say:
“Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves. For this reason, liberals often find it hard to understand why so many of their fellow citizens do not rally around the cause of social justice, and why many Western nations have elected conservative governments in recent years.”

He uses this theory to explain the reaction of so many liberals after the 2004 election – shocked at how the majority of voters who regarded “moral values” as the most important issue ended up voting for George W. Bush. Seen through a liberal care and justice morality, a president who cuts taxes for the wealthy and has no regard for the environment is hardly “moral.” For conservatives, however, morality doesn’t stop there – it includes values like allegiance, authority, and tradition. So showing support for an ongoing war (solidarity and loyalty) or opposing same-sex marriage (authority of traditional institutions) may follow as moral positions. It is not hard to see why this leads to disagreement.

So, is there anything that can be done? Haidt argues that a better understanding of the five moral foundations and how they are valued in different societies (or different political ideologies) is crucial. Dismissing values like loyalty, authority, and purity as “backwards” or  “ignorant”, as many liberals do, fails to acknowledge the moral concerns that drive many people’s decisions. And it’s hard to persuade people when you don’t understand their motivations. Haidt says that “recognizing these latter foundations as moral (instead of amoral, or immoral, or just plain stupid) can open up a door in the wall that separates liberals and conservatives when they try to discuss moral issues.” I do hope so.

Further links:
Morals Authority, a more detailed article on Jonathan Haidt and his ideas on morality and current American politics.
What's the Frequency Lakoff?, an article that discusses the ideas of both Haidt and George Lakoff, who also tries to identify mental frameworks that can help explain political ideology. Lakoff  traces many differences between liberals and conservatives to their conceptual metaphors of government as family – either a “nurturant parent” or a “strict father”. The article is pretty critical of Lakoff's ideas about political language, and sees Haidt as more accurately addressing the problem.