Problem Analysis is Not the Key to Successful Design Process

Diving deeply into problem analysis or early bottom up activity is not typical activity for experienced and successful designers. A more flexible approach and parallel thought processes and activities are more characteristic. That is the observation of Nigel Cross in an essay he writes in the Design Studies Journal.

Victor Lombardi sparks a great debate about design process on Noise Between Stations while discussing the differences in approach to process between expert and novice designers, as described by Nigel Cross and Henrik Gedenryd in their independent research on the topic. PDF documents may be downloaded for Cross' article, "Expertise in Design", and Section 3 of Gendenryd's PhD dissertation on "How Designers Work".

Some of what Cross observes about the differentiation in process and even in capability resonates with me. The following quotes encapsulate his article for me:

...[S]uccessful design behaviour is based not on extensive problem analysis, but on adequate 'problem scoping' and on a focused or directed approach to gathering problem information and prioritising criteria.


Successful, experienced and—especially—outstanding designers are found in various studies to be pro-active in problem framing, actively imposing their view of the problem and directing the search for solution conjectures.

He maintains that expertise is acquired, and the approach that is characteristic of expert designers is simultaneously top-down/broad and bottom-up/deep. Experts tend to use generative reasoning (a conceptual approach to problem solving) rather than exhaustively doing problem analysis. Cross observes that the expert's typical design process is a co-evolution of the problem and solution:

  • Name and describe features of the problem
  • Frame by recognizing partial solutions and use them to impose a coherence that guides subsequent design steps
  • Conceptualize partial solution structure and iterate over its form

This is a process of finding the possible solutions that the individual wants to address or feels might provide the best solution based on experience or some other externally acquired knowledge. The act of drawing and designing continually exposes further requirements and required inventions in the problem/solution space.

I also like what Cross describes as the "Opportunistic Behavior of Designers." The idea is that expert designers typically follow a set of principles and structures when they set out to tackle a design problem. But then the designer may abandon rigor when a partial solution arose that provided a direction or confident line of inquiry.

This is where I think the differentiators between expert and novice lie. The ability to know when to go deep is probably lost on less experienced designers, who may spend cycles on the wrong activities in favor of structure and rigor for their own sake, or because of lack of confidence in one's knowledge. Consequently a novice may go too deeply into problem analysis or may dive into a particular solution too early. I know what this is like, and have done that many times in my career.

I think the above point is more interesting an observation than the one Cross makes that expert designers spend less time generating alternative ideas or a large volume of ideas. I'm reminded of Buxton's description of the expanding and shrinking funnels in the generation and refinement of a design. Sketching, that ideation phase where a lot of ideas are generated until the "right" partial solution emerges, is likely different from person to person depending on expertise or simple design acuity.

What I take away in this observation of experts is that design, whether it's industrial design, architecture, or interface design, cannot be a rigorous process in terms of adherence to structure. Every activity can't be as measurable and rigid as you might guess from reading what theorists have to say. This is why I've been turned off by interviews in the past that require an interaction designer to be so heavily weighted on the research end. I know what I do when I design, and that's not it. Research might be part of what I do, but it's not the center.

I've never really listed the less tangible attributes of my own design process before. In my self-awareness as a designer the following attributes, culled from this article, describe the kind of designer I would try to be at the end of the day.

A good designer...

  • relies on principles and experience—uses first principles and the cumulative experience over her career or within the project to inform her process
  • is a multi-tasker—I don't really like that term, but it means she can work multiple activities and thought process, both broad and deep, in parallel
  • is flexible—knows when to abandon rigor in favor of action and decisiveness

I still have to read Gedenryd's section on "Design and congition as inquiry" to comment on that, but this is my reaction so far to Cross' excellent article on this topic and the comments generated in Victor's blog entry.