Tipping the Iceberg Upside Down

Published Categorized as Articles

“Here is the brief. You have until Friday.”  

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are being asked to do something but have no clarity on why you have to work on such a project or deliverable?

Being a designer, I face this situation all the time. Often, people will brief me on already “solutionised” requests. They will tell you they know exactly what is required, that it is what our users and customers want. But I never take these tales as granted, and neither should you.

It isn’t that I don’t trust stakeholders and colleagues, I do actually trust them, but I know also that each individual has only a piece of the puzzle. We are all humans and that means we are flawed with biases and cultural preconceptions, we are blind when it comes to fully comprehend the problem we are trying to solve (it’s kind of when you lost your keys in the dark walking through a park, and you tend to only look under a street light: even though it’s easier to spot in the light where your keys might be, there is still a strong probability your keys won’t be under the light). Ok, let me tell you a story. You probably read or heard already about it, it is the story of 3 blind men and an elephant. The blind men all meet and are asked to describe something. One says ”It’s long and skinny, like a snake!” The other says “You don’t know what you are talking about. It’s like the trunk of a tree, round and thick.” The third says “You’re both wrong! It’s like a giant disc, wide and circular.” After some time, they stopped arguing, and started to listen and put the pieces together. Only after collaborating and exchanging their perspective they managed to “see” that this thing was an elephant. 

Another thing to take into consideration is, as I explored in the article “The challenge of uncertainty” (https://www.personalantifragility.com/c/antifragility/the-challenge-of-uncertainty), the more you work on complex problems, the less expertise will matter. Actually, it will matter but only if and when the expert admits he or she doesn’t know what exactly is the problem and how the solution will look like. But I digress, this will be the topic of another article yet to be written on why specialism and expertise calls for the doom of innovation and creative thinking.

Look behind reality

I usually always challenge a brief or a request (even a perspective) when it is presented to me for the reasons mentioned above. Not only we, humans, aren’t reliable, but most of us accept the first layer of reality as it is instead of questioning it. I guess it is always fuelled by an innate curiosity drive that pushes me and other curious fellow humans to look at what’s underneath the water.

In his book “The case against reality” Hofman argues that the entire perceived reality is actually an interface codified by our biology (and culture). You have cases of male beetles mistaking their female counterpart for brown pieces of glass coming from bottles, or like in the gorilla experiment, we can be so focused at looking for what we search that we missed completely the gorilla entering in our vision field!

Moreover, being a designer I have to understand what is the real problem to solve for humans (Human-Centred-Design). Therefore, for me, a worthy demand should alway be about solving some problems (creatively), within a set of constraints (coming from the situation and its context), so that it can benefit people (notion of serving alleviating some human suffering).

What I mean by creatively is exactly the fact that if one looks at the real problem, one can only do so by stepping out enough so one can see the big picture. Like we say in design, “always think in terms of the larger context: a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in a neighbourhood, a neighbourhood in a city, etc.” 

From chaos to order

When I look at a brief, I know that it’s not it. The same as when a sailor or the captain of a ship encounters an iceberg, he or she knows that they can only see the tip and that a much larger part underneath the water can be hazardous if one gets too close to it (hopefully it will be a much better captain that the Titanic’s one, but the fault is really on the company that owned the Titanic for not going above and beyond regulation and limiting the number of safety canoes to its bare minimum — for boats half the size!).

I love information, learning new things, reading about physics and the cosmos, looking at ancient civilisations and watching science-fiction far in the future. So, not only I like knowing a bit more on what I’m asked to work on, but every designer should. 

Our work consists of first understanding the goals or “Why am I doing this?” (I’m also extremely lazy, so I like knowing if my time is worth spending on it). If you don’t have a clear answer, or if the answer to this question doesn’t exist, then you can’t design anything. So you have to dig, ask who it is for (because we are doing this for someone — HCD), how it will be used, in which context, if this is what they need or what they want, etc. (it’s about someone in a particular situation or context). Finally, the key is to understand the contribution, what is it for the human you are solving the problem for, or what are his or her goals. This last part is actually difficult to frame as it is often influenced by a larger system than the context you are looking at here. Humans (our) behaviours are informed by their past and their culture, motivated by their biology, and they are often unconscious goals. But here again I digress, this will make another article on the Human situation and why we are all f*cking weird!

In short, designers should not be afraid to dive and reach for the chaotic mass of information that is out there in order to help frame the challenge, and it is done by stepping out to see the big picture (or looking beneath the water). They also should really strive to understand the goals and motivation. There is a well known tool amongst practitioners that is called the 5 Whys, it is exactly what it says, asking five times the reason someone will give you when discussing their goals. (Of course there are so many ways to understand someone’s goals, User research and Market research have tools for doing it. The real difficulty is that often the questions asked in these surveys are quite shallow, maybe because asking hard question is hard in itself.)

It can take as much time as required. Today there are also a lot of iterative methodologies that help you test the little knowledge you’ve accumulated on the go, from this mass of information I mentioned earlier to slowly impose order from this chaos. 

Inverse your investments

How much money does your company invest in discovery projects, research and development, supporting play, creativity and exploration? Compare now to how much money your company invests in operations and productions? 

Now, the real question is “does it matter?” That is the question, since the way you will invest your time (and therefore your money and resources) should depend on the type of problems you are trying to solve. Going back to the problem categories, when you can easily know what the problem might be and that you also know how to solve this problem, you work in the category of complicated problems. That means engineers and artisans, mechanics and watchmakers work on complicated problems. They can remove the parts of the system they are working on in order to find the problem and can fix the system to resolve the issue, providing the right resources. But, when you work with complex systems, it is suddenly vastly more uncertain about what the solution to a problem might be, and that you better have to figure out what problem is the right problem to solve. Otherwise it will be like searching for a needle in a haystack, you will keep poking without ever really putting your finger on it (must hurt if you do so, but it’s the best way to find a needle in such situation).

In sum, how well you framed the problem determines how well you will solve it.

I will conclude this passage with the quote that seems to have been coming from the head of the Industrial Engineering Department of Yale University probably decades ago:

“If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is.”

Or with a similar quote from Albert Einstein, who has reportedly said similar popular expression:

“If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.”