Chitraj Bissoonauth, Christiane Margerita Herr, and Thomas Fischer
This project investigates a distinction – described by multiple authors using varying terms – between two modes of purposeful human action. The first mode is understanding in order to act. The second mode is acting in order to understand. The first mode alone, viewing purposeful human action as linearly goal-directed, has long dominated theories of design. Recently, theories of design have also acknowledged the second mode, with both modes complementing each other to form circular “conversational”, and “reflective” theories of purposeful human action in general and of design in particular.
To date, however, the circular interconnection of both modes received limited empirical attention, with the most substantive such effort having only been tangential to design. That effort investigated Tetris play and labelled the two modes as pragmatic (understanding to act) and epistemic (acting to understand) action. With Tetris being characterised by simple rules and a well-defined goal, the question arises whether this game offers a sufficient and suitable context to account for human action in the context of design, with its ill-defined goals and often-conflicting requirements.
To address this question, this project examined the distinction between both modes in an empirical lab study of individual designers engaged in digital design processes. It employed concurrent think-aloud protocol analysis and collected data in the form of audio/video recordings, which were transcribed and coded using an extension of the Linkograph notation.
This analysis led to several insights into the interplay of both modes, taking into account the ill-defined and subjective nature of design and, based on that, the absence of clear temporal “episodes” that offer convenient units of observation in Tetris play. Pragmatic design actions were frequently observed to yield epistemic return instead, and vice versa. Also, numerous instances of design action qualifying as one mode in a given time frame were found to qualify as the respective other modes over longer or shorter time frames.
These findings are in general accord with the distinction between both modes and re-affirm its value in the earlier extension of linear theories of human action to circular ones. However, they also show that the two modes have little more than reductive descriptive value in the context of design. They are far from offering unambiguous explanatory or prescriptive value and, accordingly, appear unlikely to offer straightforward instructive or methodological utility in design practice, design education or toolmaking for design.
Keywords: digital design, linear and circular processes, pragmatic and epistemic actions, protocol analysis, Linkograph