Wednesday, September 04, 2013

More on Tangibles and Design Thinking

Previously, I'd proposed :

"Common objects, either material or digital, could enhance individual recall and retention while capitalizing on the peer-learning effects of editing, idea production, and affiliation: examples might include mediated group reports, sticky-note assemblage/pastiche, posters, or physical models  such as soda straw constructs (see Gamestorming for more)."

I've since applied Gamestorming-inspired techniques in one public and several private facilitations, with groups of up to 30. I directed critical dialogue aimed at widening the scope of the discussion. We then employed Post-It (TM) notes to capture individual thoughts on a topic, then had interactive rearrangements, "dot" votes, and further re-arrangement of the ideas, resolving them into themes and initiatives for further study. Photographs of the final arrays of notes provided durable work-product and documentation.

It was clear that having ideas transferred onto sticky notes facilitates memory and organization of what might otherwise be an evanescent stream of words into "things" which members of a work group can all readily point to and mutually process. 

I've since been reviewing the literature on tangibles, growing out of the emerging (though still fuzzy) field of "Design Thinking", popularized by Indeo's Tim Brown. Looking in those quarters, I also ran across the very intriguing work of Barbara Tversky, et al, at Stanford. She has done a good deal of work on "tangible" work items, in the context of multi-disciplinary design and re-design by "horizontally" staffed teams. Some studies worked with foam models of ICT devices, while others utilized erasable plastic tiles representing formal business process icons. 

Here's the gist: (1) regardless of the application domain, people think better and design more effectively in live collaborations than when working only within their own minds; and (2) they work more effectively when their hands, not just their words, are in play. 

Tversky has explored several dimensions of design-process tanglibles, in a 2x2 model, from abstract to concrete, and low to high resolution. She theorizes that "radical breaks" in design/re-design are better facilitated by media from low res/concrete space, where only minor tweaks or metrical changes tend to result from play with highly mediated and precise models like those produced by CAD. The prototypes created and manipulated in the design sessions are either "scaffolds" or  "anchors". If one wishes to challenge "form", test dominant paradigms, or get breakthrough solutions, they need to apply "scaffolds", not "anchors" to do it. If the desire is indeed to merely fine-tune existing products or processes, the more literal and precise the shared media, the better.

In a further level of abstraction, Tversky has advanced a triad of variables to consider when staging design exercises: scoping (how the problem is initially presented and perceived), shared media (the tangible or intangible common objects of play) and behaviors (i.e., those directed toward the solution, the process or how the problem is stated). 

Tversky has also drawn on anthropological theory, applying the notions of "wayfinding" and "navigation", as they relate to primitive hunting strategies, to the search for design solutions. The former are exploratory movements driven by multiple sensory cues in the immediate environment while the latter are movements driven at a more abstracted, "map" level, either from celestial objects or referenced by the cardinal directions and landmarks positioned in Cartesian space. The former are "visceral" (twisty and opportunisitic), while the latter tend to be straight lines of movement, economizing travel (time and energy) betrween 2 known points. Thus, a problem-solving process that is less solution-focused and allowing for meanders and surprises is a "wayfinding" one. Behaviors that support "wayfinding" will be the more at play; where performers report more sensory data and indulge in more subjective observations. 

The first "universal carrier", back in the Pleistocene, was probably little more than a stick thrust through an animal skin. Metaphors are means of using one thing to carry another. Here's my pictogram for metaphor, which in Greek, literally means "to carry around*"

What's NOT here, and ought to be, is the role of metaphor, as it might apply to language and visuals as well as more concrete instantiations. If, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, metaphors are not linguistic tricks performed to amuse those on the passenger decks, but the engines of meaning that spin within the hull of our conceptual life. The work of JJ Gordon and his Synectics, first developed as an educational process in the 1960's is applicable here, I think. It had didactic applications and industrial ones as well. For the student, metaphor is a bridge from the known to the unknown, for the "educated", breaking free of old metaphors can be the means to re-invention. 

As Gordon put it elegantly:

" Most learning situations involving substantive material call for Making the Strange Familiar, whereas most situations that call for innovation, as in problem solving call for Making the Familar Strange"

In Synectics practicums, new design-practioners were led to "make the familiar strange" by forcing new metaphors in the place of old but no longer-conscious ones.  Synectics could help marry shared media with applied metaphorical thinking. They will be my next stop.

Notes and clips:

A terrific doctoral dissertation by Jonathan Edelman on DT, applied, is at,%20Understanding%20Radical%20Breaks-augmented.pdf

Notes on DT process (after Tim Brown) 


Decide what issue you are trying to resolve.

Agree on who the audience is.

Prioritize this project in terms of urgency.

Determine what will make this project successful.

Establish a glossary of terms.


Review the history of the issue; remember any existing obstacles.

Collect examples of other attempts to solve the same issue.

Note the project supporters, investors, and critics.

Talk to your end-users, that brings you the most fruitful ideas for later design.

Take into account thought leaders' opinions.


Identify the needs and motivations of your end-users.

Generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs.

Log your brainstorming session.

Do not judge or debate ideas.

During brainstorming, have one conversation at a time.


Combine, expand, and refine ideas.

Create multiple drafts.

Seek feedback from a diverse group of people, include your end users.

Present a selection of ideas to the client.

Reserve judgement and maintain neutrality.

Create and present actual working prototype(s)


Review the objective.

Set aside emotion and ownership of ideas.

Avoid consensus thinking.

Remember: the most practical solution isn't always the best.

Select the powerful ideas.


Make task descriptions.

Plan tasks.

Determine resources.

Assign tasks.


Deliver to client.


Gather feedback from the consumer.

Determine if the solution met its goals.

Discuss what could be improved.

Measure success; collect data.


Although design is always subject to personal taste, design thinkers share a common 

set of values that drive innovation: these values are mainly creativity, ambidextrous 

thinking,[5] teamwork, endUnderstand the problem deeply and empathically

….and from different perspectives

Model the problem

Generate solutions, also getting to tangibles ASAP

Stimulating Divergent Conversations

As mentioned, highly resolved, abstract media is associated with parametric 


(anchoring model)

Media that exhibits low levels of resolution and high levels of abstraction is associated 

with paradigmatic shifts.

(mutable model)

In order to understand these phenomena, we turn to contemporary findings in cognitive 

science and to an experiment of our own.

Andy Clark has pointed to research that indicates that certain kinds of thinking cannot 

occur unless subjects’ hands actually move (Clark 2008). Clark asserts that much of 

what we consider to be thinking happens in the hands as well as the mind. Clark’s 

research suggests that thinking doesn’t happen only in our heads but that “certain forms 

of human cognizing include inextricable tangles of feedback, feed-forward and feedaround loops: loops that promiscuously criss-cross the boundaries of brain, body and 

world” (cf. Clark 2008, p. 129f). In other words, the media itself has an effect on how 

and what design engineers can think.

Cognitive scientist Barbara Tversky has observed that when presented with rough 

sketches, experimental subjects engaged in what Tversky calls sketchy thinking 

(Tversky et al. 2003, 2006), or the ability to think conditionally, or roughly. Other work 

in cognitive science has investigated the fitness of representations. According to the 

Cognitive Fit theory, the way the problem is re-presented determines the thinking model 

applied (Agarwal et al. 1996; Vessey and Galletta 1991).

More effective design groups ask process questions and pose user scenarios

User scenarios differ from use cases in that the latter are generic assumptions about a 

class of users and don’t take into account specific circumstances of engagement. An 

example of a use case would be, “archeologists could use this.” The conversations of all 

teams with both stimuli contained numerous examples of use case. The conversations 

of teams who deviated from the norm also included numerous depictions of user 

scenarios. User scenarios tend to concern an actual user in a specific situation, often 

described with rich sensate detail. An example of a user scenario is, “This is so cool 

that people will want to use it doing anything. They’ll use it all the time. They’ll be going 

home and they’ll steal it from work…What’s in my counter top…”


Enactment can be observed when team members act out the use of an object. This can 

occur by either pantomiming the action or using a proxy object like a water bottle or a 

cell phone to represent the object while enacting a scene in which the object is being 

used. Here again, we found numerous examples of enactment in teams that made 

paradigmatic shifts with CAD models.

Combining Metaphors (It’s Like X + Y)

It’s like X + Y involves combining two example metaphors, and seemed to occur in 

conjunction with enactment. When teams used single instances of metaphor to describe 

how a stimulus was thought to work, we observed that functional changes would be 

made to the model. However, when two metaphors were combined, we found that 

paradigmatic changes in the model occurred. For example, one team combined the 

metaphor of a scanner with the metaphor of a glove during an enactment and came up 

with a new notion that was a radical departure from the form of the device in the CAD 


Experiencing Eureka Moments (Ahhh!)

BPM media-cascades are overwhelmingly weighted toward highly abstract and highly 

resolved media-models (Fig. 12). We were anxious to see if adding media-models with 

a different profile of abstraction and resolution would help solve the problem. IT was 

new ground for us, as we had been accustomed to dealing with physical products and 

services, and not used to translating user input into process models.

Role-Playing with LegosTM

Our early explorations into changing the media of BPM centered around the notion of 

getting process experts and domain experts to engage in role playing using LegoTM 

blocks to represent stakeholders and their places of work (Fig. 14). In respect to the 

media-models framework, this is a move away from high abstraction and high resolution 

(Fig. 13). While not as concrete as actual enactments, these mediated simulations 

encouraged players to gain empathy and insight with other players. We also found 

that the simulation was often cumbersome, encouraging a level of process detail that 

seemed unnecessary.

In another experiment, we enlisted a favorite media of design thinking practitioners, 

Post-It ®; Notes (Fig. 15). We found that Post-It ®; Notes served as an excellent 

memory aid for domain experts in recalling the steps of their processes. This type of 

media also provided an object that both the domain expert and the process expert could 

point to for clarification. One significant shortcoming to Post-It ®; Notes, we found, was 

that it failed to frame the elicited process in terms of BPM.

Systems Modeling Objects

In our next iteration, we made a set of acrylic blocks based on Systems Modeling 

Language (Odum 2004; Meadows 2008). Domain experts and process experts could 

use dry erase markers and write directly on the acrylic blocks (Fig. 16). Users reported 

that the pieces were gratifying to handle, and that it was easy to make changes in their 

renditions of their processes by sliding the pieces around the table. With respect to the 

media-models framework, tangible systems modeling objects constitute a move towards 

less resolution and less abstraction than traditional BPM media (Fig. 13).

Experimental subjects who had used TBPM elements had the benefits of a memory 

aid. However, they were able to frame their experience not simply as steps, as with 

Post-It ®; Notes, but as a process, which included an understanding of parallelism 

and alternatives, achieved by placing TBPM elements above one another. The final 

question, “Is there anything else you would like to add?” led to numerous adjustments 

and changes, including exceptions to the process they had not yet reported.

When we observed interactions between domain experts and process experts, we 

found the heightened level of involvement of both parties striking. Domain experts 

easily grasped fundamental BPM concepts, noting parallelism and alternatives in their 


Models are important in the invention process.

What is the relative value of metaphor?


Synectics is a way to approach creativity and problem-solving in a rational 

way. "Traditionally, the creative process has been considered after the fact... The 

Synectics study has attempted to research creative process in vivo, while it is going on." 


According to Gordon, Synectics research has three main assumptions:

The creative process can be described and taught;

Invention processes in arts and sciences are analogous and are driven by the 

same "psychic" processes;

Individual and group creativity are analogous.[5]

With these assumptions in mind, Synectics believes that people can be better at being 

creative if they understand how creativity works.

One important element in creativity is embracing the seemingly irrelevant. Emotion is 

emphasized over intellect and the irrational over the rational. Through understanding 

the emotional and irrational elements of a problem or idea, a group can be more 

successful at solving a problem.[6]

Prince emphasized the importance of creative behaviour in reducing inhibitions and 

releasing the inherent creativity of everyone. He and his colleagues developed specific 

practices and meeting structures which help people to ensure that their constructive 

intentions are experienced positively by one another. The use of the creative behaviour 

tools extends the application of Synectics to many situations beyond invention sessions 

(particularly constructive resolution of conflict).

Gordon emphasized the importance of "'metaphorical process' to make the familiar 

strange and the strange familiar". He expressed his central principle as: "Trust things 

that are alien, and alienate things that are trusted." This encourages, on the one hand, 

fundamental problem-analysis and, on the other hand, the alienation of the original 

problem through the creation of analogies. It is thus possible for new and surprising 

solutions to emerge.

As an invention tool, Synectics invented a technique called "springboarding" for 

getting creative beginning ideas. For the development of beginning ideas, the method 

incorporates brainstorming and deepens and widens it with metaphor; it also adds an 

important evaluation process for Idea Development, which takes embryonic new ideas 

that are attractive but not yet feasible and builds them into new courses of action which 

have the commitment of the people who will implement them.

Synectics is more demanding of the subject than brainstorming, as the steps involved 

mean that the process is more complicated and requires more time and effort.
The English metaphor derives from the 16th-century Old French métaphore, which comes from the Latin metaphora, "carrying over", in turn from the Greek μεταφορά (metaphorá), "transfer",[2] from μεταφέρω (metapherō), "to carry over", "to transfer"[3] and that from μετά (meta), "between"[4] + φέρω (pherō), "to bear", "to carry".[5]
Media for group idea-play and communication.
Metaphorical Media
Place memory and invention
Visualization of abstract material
Tactile and gestural impacts on learning and retention

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