Blog about architectural and design psychology

Let's do Natural Design

Iterative design is no news for savvy designers anymore. However, design should not only incorporate it's surroundings when it is created, but also during it's existence.

Iterative design is no news for savvy designers anymore. However, design should not only incorporate it's surroundings when it is created. Modern design should be flexible and responsive to it's environment. I would like to suggest a new approach to design called natural design.

State of the art

Classic product design is a linear process, which therefore is often referred to as waterfall approach. Just like a waterfall, the designer jumps from one step to the next – preferably upwards rather than downwards. The designer would define the problem, do research, ideate possible solutions and then realize one of them. While this process may include additional steps, it is always characterized by a continuous refinement of the final product.

This approach to design has been criticized many times before and I do not intend to repeat the different points here. As a response to this criticism, human-centered, iterative design has been proposed as an alternative way of design.

How rigid should good design be?

How rigid should good design be?

Iterative design

Contemporary design should not follow a linear process but be performed iteratively: The designer repeats different steps of the design process multiple times depending on the sophistication of the solution. The final solution is thus not developed right away but in multiple attempts. In Design Thinking, these steps are called spaces to highlight that there is no predefined order in which the designer has to take them.

In theory, if the designer gathers crucial insights with a prototype of higher resolution, they can always go back to an earlier phase in order to do more research or work on the initial concept again. Even with a waterfall approach, though, you would hypothetically be able to run through the design process multiple times.

There are two main differences between the two approaches though. The first one concerns the designer’s state of mind: You don’t think in confined work steps but always have all aspects from problem definition to product delivery in mind. Every aspect of the solution should generally be debatable and reversible, which can pose quite a challenge as to when regard a certain decision as final.

The second difference is an organizational one. In order to be able to perform multiple design iterations, every single step of the design process should be as short as possible. In Design Thinking, for instance, an ideation session can be as short as ten minutes, which can be tricky for people not being used to the approach.

But here’s the thing: From my experience, many projects in the field have to be completed under much time pressure. As a result, the design phases are already extremely short and there is only little opportunity to do design iteratively. What is more, only few employers will show much understanding if you present them an almost perfect looking solution to a design problem only to inform them a little later that you actually had to go back to problem definition again. Even if the solution was created swiftly, it will look like a waste of time and resources to do it all over again. This is not to say that iterative design was not be of any use. It perfectly makes sense, indeed. However, in many situations it will only remain a vision.

Human-centered design

Another important aspect of modern design is that design decisions should be human-centered, i.e. based on the opinions and needs of the people using the product. To achieve this, the designer does interviews with people and tests the prototypes of the product as often as possible to integrate their feedback. As a psychologist, I highly value this aspect of design.

Design has always been human-centered to some extend. Otherwise, a cup would not feature a handle to hold it and the steps of a staircase would be so high that no one can ever climb them. Of course, designers have always had the user in mind. So why do we need human-centered design today? There are probably many good reasons, but let me mention three important ones here.

Firstly, our society has become highly specialized: People do specific jobs and hobbies that someone else without their knowledge and experience would not be able to do. This has also allowed us to create machines, tools, vehicles, services, clothes, literature and much more, which are highly sophisticated, too. Sophistication, however, is related to complexity. The user does not know and understand everything that the designer, programmer, engineer, theatre director etc. knows. It therefore has become much more difficult to design things in a way that people can easily use or consume them. Human-centered design helps to learn more about the abilities and knowledge of the target user and to evaluate design assumptions. What is more, human-centered design allows to adjust a product design to the needs of the customer. There are many ways to design a car, for instance, but different drivers will value different things in a car.

Another reason is that globalization has increased competition, too. Most people will agree that competition is generally positive for the user: Since the user can choose between different providers, providers are incentivized to create products and services with a better cost-benefit ratio. From the perspective of the provider though, this means that hey continuously have to find ways to decrease costs or increase the quality of their products. Quality can certainly be defined in many ways. For example, a product with entirely new functions can increase the quality of different aspects of the users’ life. However, for products that are already established, quality is not only defined by functionality and usability. People nowadays expect that high quality products are motivating, enjoyable, interesting, surprising, challenging, pleasant. To create such products, it is key to understand the customer first.

There is a third reasons, why human-centered design is so important. In fact, this reason might apply to such simple products as a cup or a staircase, too. Our environment and the products we use are affecting us on a subconscious level. The way we feel, think and behave does not only depend on ourselves, but on our surroundings, too. As a designer, though, it will be difficult to consider these subconscious effect without deliberately studying them. In my opinion, this aspect of design has been quite underestimated.

2016-06 Natural Design P3

Modern technology allows for a new way of design.

Again, as with iterative design, there are not enough time and to do proper human-centered design in the field – which explains why it is still a unique selling point to supply products or services that were developed in an iterative, human-centered fashion. Yet my point is another one: Even if the design is done perfectly iterative and human-centered, it is only a matter of time until the product will be overtaken by new developments and changing conditions. To prevent this, we should change our definition of good design and reconsider the responsibilities of a designer.

A new definition of design

Design should not be seen as a process in which a genius derives a final solution to a problem form their observations and muse. Instead, design should be understood as a foundation, which allows natural processes to take place.

A design should be understood as a foundation, which allows natural processes to take place. #naturalDesign

Good design should take into account that the conditions change by the minute and are never constant. In other words, there cannot be a final product solution to a certain problem or need. A predetermined and rigid product can only be sufficient for as long as the conditions have not changed too much. This is why old buildings get deconstructed and outdated technology dumped. But it does not have to be this way. It seems wrong to me to abandon and dispose of things even if they are physically and technically still working just because their design does not meet the requirements anymore.

Things created by nature, on the other hand, possess a certain beauty. In fact, they can be called more beautiful and sophisticated than anything that has ever been created by a human. The delicate structures of biologic organisms, the sophisticated mechanisms of physics or the sensitive responsiveness of the human skin are natural designs that can make us stand in awe. It’s no surprise that people study nature in detail and try to copy the mechanisms and structures for their own designs. Some of the greatest achievements of human kind were only possible with nature serving as a model.

To allow design to adapt to changing conditions, it needs to allow for natural processes to take place. I would like to examine a number of aspects that, from my understanding, define natural design.

Openness

The content of an open product is not defined from the start. Instead, the product allows users to fill it with information or content and to use it according to their needs. This approach has been popular in urban design, where the usage of certain spaces is only planned roughly. For example, a building might promote a space on ground floor that is equipped with sufficient water connections so that it can be used for catering. However, the architect may not have defined if this catering will be a restaurant, an ice cream shop or even a school canteen. Openness is not only concerned with the product itself, but also with regulations and rules related to it. In fact, if someone would wand to rent the before mentioned space as an office, this may be fine too – as long as it does not interfere with the interests e.g. of the residents of the building. In this regard, openness goes hand in hand with the next principle.

Participation

This one may feel familiar to designers who are already thinking a lot about human-centricity. The point though is that the product should not only be created in a human-centered way, but also allow human-centricity during its existence. Whenever someone designs a product, it will be important to think about means for users to participate in its further development. For instance a hotline, which is hidden on a website so that only the most frustrated customers will find it, does not seem to be a good start. Also, what happens if a person actually gives valuable feedback on the phone? Do the call center agents have a possibility to quickly forward feedback to an authority, who can initiate further steps? It is important that participation is included in the very product and taken seriously. Token surveys and hotlines frankly are a waist of everyone’s time.

Responsiveness

On a smaller scale, a product should also be responsive to current changes and demands. While participation is great to find a consensus regarding long-term development of a product, responsiveness will help the product adapting to the customer in the actual process of usage. Responsiveness consists of sensitivity and flexibility. Modern technology allows sensitivity through the integration of sensors and algorithms. However, data should be collected only to increase the effectiveness of the product itself, not to spy on users or sell their data to advertising firms. This is not only a question of privacy and dignity. It is also necessary for the users to build trust in the system. Flexibility can be achieved by modern and/or natural materials, that allow the product to change its shape and functionality according to the environment.

Modularity

A modular product allows customers to decompose it and combine different modules. Modularity enables a product to adapt to its customers in terms of functionality, resources and price. What is more, a modular product can be developed using the agile development approach. Agile development is characterized by small development cycles, where every cycle ends with a usable product with a higher value than before. With modular products, a development cycle may end with a new or revised module. Also, it enables to change the product gradually at a later point in time, obviating the need for disposing of the product just because a single part is broken or not adequate anymore. Compared with flexibility, modularity allows users to actively manipulate the setup of a product, while flexibility relates to only one function and how it incorporates different states and conditions.

Reusability

Since sustainability has become an important topic in many modern companies, this aspect will not seem to be utterly new. However, most products are still not reusable, which makes the point even more valid. In fact, reusability does not necessarily mean that a product can be recycled and pressed into a new form after it has become obsolete. A product can also be reusable, if it can be applied to a new usage context without even changing it or by only exchanging parts of its modular structure. To allow this, the quality of the materials used for the product should be either made for short-term use and thus be recyclable, or be made for long-term use and have a high, long-lasting quality. Yet, especially technological products are said to have predetermined braking points so that even a happy customer will have to exchange it for a new one at some point. It seems likely though that such products will eventually be superseded by others.

Interrelation

Different products as well as their various parts should have a connection, which allows them to create balance between them. It does not necessarily have to be a digital connection, but can for instance also be an organizational one. However, digital connections via the internet obviously have the advantage of being very fast in conveying information. This is why Internet of Things (IoT) is a real opportunity for products to become way more intelligent and adaptable. This way, functionality, shape or location of a product can be dependent on the conditions of other products it is related to. This is a pattern that can be found in nature in many areas. For example, diffusion describes the process of particles distributing themselves equally in a space. Thus, the location of one particle is dependent on the location of the others. Interrelation also means that a product should be considered as part of a greater system.

Naturalness

Obviously, if we try to do natural design, natural materials should be a substantial part. These materials do not only have the advantage of relating humans back to their roots, but also have functional advantages. For example, wood can very well absorb clang in a room and plants tend to improve air quality. Part of natural design should be to not only allow humans but also nature to adopt a product. Also, users of a product such as a building should have the opportunity to access nature easily, e.g. by having a community garden where they can plant flowers or vegetables. This can be done for example by dissolving the borders between product and nature.

These seven principles of natural design may not only be successfully applied to products, but also to services and organizations. My intention here is to raise awareness for these characteristics as, from my perspective, most modern designs still do not address to them sufficiently.

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