Interactions Magazine

Systemic and meta-systemic laws

With the publication of The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Humberto Maturana established himself as an important figure in the history of systems thinking. His essay “Metadesign” is a strong argument against technological determinism and points to our responsibility for the world we create; it should be required reading for all design students.

Over the past several years, Maturana (now 84) has collaborated with Ximena Dávila to produce a set of essays on “human biological-cultural living,” which have not been translated into English. At the heart of the book are 30 “laws” that summarize much of their thinking about biological and cultural systems. These laws provide insights for managers, designers, teachers, and students grappling with challenges in a world in which all forms of design (and especially software and service design) increasingly require systems thinking. Everyone interested in systems thinking should study these laws.

As Maturana and Dávila have noted, their “systemic and meta-systemic laws are not definitions, ontological assumptions, or a priori principles, they are abstractions of the operation of systems in the different sensory-operational-relational domains in which we distinguish them.”

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor

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The problem with transparency is that it’s not conspicuous enough

This article proposes a model of transparency, the idea that a good tool “disappears” in the hands of skilled users. The article then proposes a model of design as the management of a dynamic transparency. In use, we often want a tool to be transparent, but other times, in the show room or in front of guests for example, we may want the tool to call attention to itself. And finally, the article argues that design theory (and presumably design models) are best when they too are transparent.

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor

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Coherence and responsiveness

This article presents a model of the trade-offs between responsiveness and coherence often found in designing and managing systems. The model also describes how both responsiveness and coherence often decline as a system grows. The authors argue that designers need not accept a zero-sum or least-bad choice but rather should seek platform improvements and collaboration tools that increase both responsiveness and coherence.

— Hugh Dubberly, Editor

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What can Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive teach us about designing?

Written for Interactions Magazine

The day after Steve Jobs died, my friend Rich Binell, another Apple alum, asked, “Why did Steve Jobs’ passing affect us more than the passing of other notable people?” Of course, Jobs changed the world, and many of us were moved by his work.

How did he do it?

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A taxonomy of models used in the design process

Models are increasingly important in design—as design, in collaboration with other disciplines, increasingly deals with systems and services. Many aspects of customer experience unfold over time and location, and thus are intangible. With their ability to visualize and abstract various aspects of a given situation, models become tools for exploring relationships in ways that aren’t otherwise possible. To this end, models are able to synthesize different types of data (qualitative and quantitative), as well as inputs from various perspectives to provide visibility into issues occurring at the boundaries of disciplines. Where differences in discipline language, practices, and approaches can get in the way of problem solving, models can provide insights and frame discussions that must take place.

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Convergence 2.0 = Service + Social + Physical

Written for Interactions magazine by Hugh Dubberly.

In 1980, when I was a college student, I heard Nicholas Negroponte speak about the future of computing. What stood out most was his model of convergence. Negroponte presented the model in three steps. The first slide showed the publishing, broadcasting, and computing industries as separate rings; the second slide showed the rings beginning to overlap; and the third slide showed the rings almost completely overlapped. The publishing, broadcasting, and computing industries were converging and would soon become one.

Convergence 1.0 = Publishing + Broadcasting + Computing.

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Conversational Alignment

Written for Interactions magazine by Austin Henderson and Jed Harris.

People invent and revise their conversation midsentence. People assume they understand enough to converse and then simply jump in; all the while they monitor and correct when things appear to go astray from the purposes at hand. This article explores how this adaptive regime works, and how it meshes with less adaptive regimes of machines and systems.

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Design as Learning—or “Knowledge Creation”—the SECI Model

Written for Interactions magazine by Shelley Evenson and Hugh Dubberly.


Design

Designers often speak of design as a process. Typically, design thinking leads to design making, which leads to artifacts. Yet the design process also leads to something more—to new knowledge. Thus, we might characterize designing as a form of learning.

Curiously, the converse is also true. We might characterize learning as a form of designing. That is, the process of observing, reflecting, and making (and iterating those steps) may aid learning. Several designers and teachers have recognized the link between designing and learning and are bringing designing into curricula not just in college but also in high school and even elementary school. See, for example, a recent New York Times article, “Putting New Tools in Students’ Hands” [1].

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Ability-centered Design: From Static to Adaptive Worlds

Written for Interactions magazine by Shelley Evenson, Justin Rheinfrank and Hugh Dubberly.

Editor’s Note:
After a long career in systems engineering and design, John Rheinfrank died on July 4, 2004.

John’s Ph.D. dissertation explored what he called “organic systems theory,” or what’s now called “complex adaptive systems”—bridging multiple disciplines and theoretical frames (e.g., biology, computing, economics, psychology, and sociology). John spent most of his professional life applying principles derived from living systems to designing systems for people—from design languages that could serve as the foundation for a broad range of reprographic machines for Xerox, to personal information and communication appliances for Philips. In essence, he wanted us to design systems that are alive.

In the years since John’s death, complex systems have become deeply engrained in our everyday lives, from Facebook and Twitter to the interconnected financial systems that plunged us into the credit crisis. When John learned he was sick, he began working on a book on the relationship between design and systems. Sadly, he never finished, but some of his core ideas were preserved in a presentation on moving from static to adaptive worlds. John saw adaptive worlds as a new way to frame interaction design, which makes it an important topic for interactions. This presentation was his way of helping us make the leap from the present to the future he could already envision. Working from John’s presentation slides and a tape of his talk, we have summarized his ideas.

—Hugh Dubberly

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The Space of Design

Models of the process of design are relatively common. (I have found about 150 such models, many of which are presented in How Do You Design?) Each describes a sequence of steps required to design something—or at least the steps that designers report or recommend taking. Models of the process of design are common because designers often need to explain what they do (or want to do) so that clients, colleagues, and students can understand.

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