Putting the horse in front of the wagon: how a multi-contextual design space successfully addresses complex challenge

Wouter Kersten, Jan Carel Diehl and Jo van Engelen

context variation
complexity
rich design space

We observe that designers who want to address complex issues are currently often falling for the temptation to fight this complexity with simplification. They acknowledge that there are differences between contexts (e.g. user groups, countries) and to address this, they zoom in on one specific context. This enables them to develop a solution that works in that specific context. After this has been achieved they start working on variations for new contexts. This strategy may look appealing, but seems to satisfy a desire for management control rather than address a real life issue. Complex situations seem complex for a reason: reality is complex. Simplification by focusing on a beneficiary group in one context has several consequences which together clarify why it is the wrong response. We mention a few of these consequences:
• Heads down design: Simplified issue analysis results in incomplete views, which is certain to result in limited quality of ‘solutions’. If at all useful then only for a limited group, a small part of the issue and/or a short duration in time.
• Path dependency: Any next step to improve the starting solution will be a small variation on the first step, even if next steps, e.g. involving new beneficiary groups, in fact require a different way of looking at the situation and quite different ‘solutions’
• Early zooming reduces the solution space: Since complexity is characterised by many elements, and many interactions taking place, will severely reducing the number of connections lead to something meaningful? Can we think of an alternative?
Alternatives are possible and several authors have provided thoughts on this. Below we list a representative while not exhaustive summary:
• Accepting the reality of contemporary society being complex is the first step in enabling yourself to deal with it: “fight complexity with complexity” (Stacey, 1996)
• Move beyond simply putting (human) users central as the solution, but apply more systemic thinking throughout (Jones, 2014)
• Information that is novel to you, i.e. enriches your overall view, is more likely to reside at or over the edge of your network than in the centre (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015).
• ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ are able to adopt and evolve with changing circumstances which is arguably the most important characteristic to cope in a rapidly accelerating society (Friedman, 2016).
• Especially when still in issue definition phase, consider the concept of (re)framing (Dorst, 2015), but refrain from being satisfied with just using that concept. Ask how reframing can be nudged in a direction that is likely to be useful. “Reframe!” is not a helpful guideline. We may need to provide better guidance on how to reframe to be able to address complex issues. One important element is that it requires multiple perspectives. In practice, involving different (types of) people to be able to actually reframe (Suen, 2015).
• While moving from single-angle to collaborative inquiry is a good step, the move we really need to make is to shared inquiry, to arrive at true integration of multiple perspectives and in that process start seeing new emerging patterns (Nelson, 2014).
• From research with junior designers it became apparent that to source inspiration that turns out to be relevant, this inspiration should neither be too close (i.e., too obvious) nor too far (i.e. really arbitrary) removed from the challenge at hand. (Gonçalves, 2016). However, they often do not get much guidance how they might achieve this. Can we combine these alternative thoughts?
The above provides ingredients for a way forward when dealing with complex design challenges. We propose an approach and associated attitude that takes these thoughts one step further: Context Variation by Design (CVD). It combines four main principles to shape the analysis: systematic variation including of networks, hierarchical decomposition, satisficing and discursiveness. These principles interact and create a rich solution space that allows crucial connections to be revealed by avoiding early simplification. A central construct in this approach is to aim for multi-contextual richness of the design space. Richness as a design construct is a little researched area. Our work intends to change that because we feel it is key to addressing complexity. We elaborate elsewhere. What might this approach add for designers (and others)?

What does CVD-thinking add to a designer’s arsenal? We argue that it adds this: recognising that in order to work with the multiformity of many challenges and allowing connections (hidden or otherwise) to be revealed, systemic principles need to be combined with early systematic variation. We consider our key message to be that instead of early simplification and late variation, we should reverse the dynamic: early systematic variation (products, markets, networks) and if still necessary save simplification for later, e.g. by starting implementation in one context first. Examples of what we can expect when we focus on richness of design spaces are: building in ‘doors’ for future requirements, realising that key requirements in one context are still desirable for other contexts and introducing connected multi-context business models.

In summary
When analysing and considering a complex societal challenge, draw facts, opinions and insights from multiple contexts into one design space to create a rich analysis of the possible issue, as basis for a platform for solution directions that as a whole cater for requirements from a range of different end-user environments. By approaching the challenge in this way,
• One has direction for reframing (preventing too one sided formulation of the challenge), enriching the concept of Dorst.
• One can use systemic design principles combined with a practical issue, connecting to the work of Jones.
• One has guidance on whom to involve in a shared inquiry, enabling Suen’s ideas,
• One has guidance on where to source inspiration, building on Gonçalves’ work and giving direction on how to decide where to look.
• One creates a design space from which contextual adaptations will be easier to accomplish, addressing worries by Friedman.
• One creates more space for integrated pictures and emergence (Stacey, Nelson) with lower risks of heads down design (Meyerson) and of path dependencies based on early simplifications (Jones)

Presentation & paper

Posted Oct-2017

RSD proceedings are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

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