Some interesting things have happened in the past few weeks, which I’d like to take a look at through the lens of my profession: the death of Oscar Niemeyer, revisions to the DSM, and the ongoing battle over the fiscal cliff.
What struck me about these events is the spotlight they shine on the connection between high level or holistic planning and ground level details.
Atomization is something we in digital design have become increasingly familiar with. The application development industry has found considerable success (generally) with the modularization of functionality into tinier and tinier components, designed to fit into larger platforms. “Feature creep” seems to have lost importance over the years as the features associated with phones and devices fade into the background relative to the applications that employ them. Operating system developers no longer attempt to control every aspect of their user experience, but rather the broader and more universal ones (though to different degrees). Platform design is essentially strategic and holistic.
Overlaying this kind of critique on the edits to the DSM produces some interesting results. The DSM is a purpose built reference for assisting medical professionals in their diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders. Concurrently, it is the medical industry specification of the human condition; as such, it is essentially (to use interaction design terminology) a functional requirements specification for psychiatric normality – a normative spec document for nominal system function. In plain English, it is a set of logic and law for how the human brain malfunctions – conversely, a list of situations that outlines how ‘normal’ human beings should operate.
Additionally, the document serves to outline areas which do and don’t have existing treatment plans. This directly affects the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, identifying areas where programs or products do and don’t exist to address medical needs. Again in industry parlance, the revised DSM offers a ream of RFPs for new research or product development.
It may sound weird to consider such a document as part of a larger design strategy, but when you observe the ripples emanating from these small decisions, you begin to get a sense of how (as we also see in law) even minute alterations can lead to sweeping changes. Did autism exist before there was a medical classification for it? The question may sound trite or philosophical, but the practical result of the new classification was quite tangible. The bigger question remains: what is the overall goal for human health, and how do these more strict and specific definitions support it? What is the goal of the human health “platform”, and how does this new set of design guidelines help fulfill it?
Niemeyer highlights a different kind of platform and set of design decisions: the city. While not actually responsible for the city’s layout, the Brazilian architect will always be associated with the planned capital of Brazil, Brasilia. Most contemporary urban planners will admit – gladly or begrudgingly – that an individual or office cannot (and should not) attempt to control every aspect of a city plan. Brasilia, constructed from scratch in less than four years and largely a product of modernist social theory, has stood as an example of what happens when you try.
Conceived during the advent of the automobile, Brasilia was designed with no tolerance for future modifications and built with a strict population limit. Simply put, the city of Brasilia was designed and delivered as a finished product; an entire administrative campus as an artifact. Adaptations of programming (who can or does live in which structures, for example) were not accommodated for, and growth beyond planned limits was not considered. Today the city is – while still quite beautiful and comprehensible in its architecture and layout – largely considered a sort of modernist dystopia; ringed by planned and unplanned suburbs and favelas, and increasingly subject to the crime that pervades other Brazilian cities.
In digital analogy, Brasilia represents the attempt to control every aspect of the experience, even when that strategy ossifies into dogma in direct conflict with the needs of the end user. At the other end of the spectrum, The favela (in its way) represents the attempt to address every need individually, and ultimately the inability to address any need effectively. The middle ground – a framework or set of experience guidelines, including the requirement that the platform remain as flexible as possible is the most progressive approach. You can see this at work in the best branding, holistic planning, and Agile methodology. Again, modularization to support execution, but attention to and agreement on the holistic first and foremost.
The notion of a framework brings me to the last event: the fiscal cliff. The term “framework” was used extensively by the Romney-Ryan campaign to explain its economic plans in the run up to the 2012 presidential election. On its face, this seemed to make sense – given that specifics weren’t going to be dictated by either party, why attempt to detail them for purposes of soundbite? The difference in this case was that the US political system has increasingly grown to be a zero-sum contest of two competing frameworks, where neither side has incentive to compromise with the other and the general complements of each framework is already largely understood. Given that reality, what the lack of specificity amounted to was a lack of (again in interaction design terms) user acceptance criteria. Because so many voters were familiar with the philosophical direction of each campaign, those tiny proportions of undecided constituents could be assumed to make decisions based on the specifics, rather than the frameworks.
What’s interesting to me about this last example is that while much attention is paid to the philosophical direction of the country (per one party or the other), very little is paid to the design of the system that drives it. Recent burps from the media about parliamentary or procedural changes in congress or redistricting fights aside, the electorate seems either paralyzed or disinterested in the grand design process that defines so much of the world they live in. Legal definitions and minute word choices determine the political cycles and power balance among citizens, yet civic participation has become generally relegated to the push of a button – whether a vote or a donation. The process of governance has become so complex that the layperson has very little insight or vision into the paths that connect party philosophy with ground level reality, an obscurity that both parties seem to use to their advantage.
This post has been a bit of a meander, but in summation I would suggest three design insights of particular interest to the interaction designer: don’t neglect the overall user experience goals and strategy for the benefit of the individual components; remember to design systems and strategies that can accommodate future requirements without losing their center; and never, ever forget that the process of executing against a plan is as important as the product that emerges from it – keep your rationale, deliberation, and decisions transparent and well-documented, and keep all your constituents involved as best you can.