Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

19 September 2008

Design: our barriers

Clark @ 8:12 am

Part 2 of a 4 part series:

Cognitive psychology has identified certain characteristics of our brains. When it comes to problem solving, (and we can think of design as problem-solving as well as search), we have certain behaviors that predispose us to certain types of solutions (in other words, prematurely limiting our search space). These include functional fixedness, set-effects, premature evaluation, and, not too surprisingly, social issues.

Functional fixedness is really just about not seeing new applications of a tool.  This can be seen when designers are familiar with a particular implementation tool or environment. The designs then tend to resemble what is easy to do with that tool (the old “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail”).  Alternatively, they may push the tool beyond it’s effective range trying to accomplish a particular outcome.  If the tool is the optimal one for the job this is not a problem, but in other cases the tool is familiar and so it is used despite a lack of relevance.  Even in robust design environments, projects often resemble what is easy to implement in that environment, not what the analysis would indicate.

Set effects are solving new problems in ways appropriate for previous problems, whether or not that’s appropriate now.  In this approach, subjects who had solved several prior problems in a particular way would solve a new problem in that well-practiced way.  However, subjects who had not had that prior experience would find the simpler solution to the problem.  What was identified as “set effects” manifests itself in designers whose new solutions resemble prior solutions even when the old solutions are inappropriate.  While it is true that the consistency produced from set effects is often beneficial, that should be a conscious decision and not the accidental outcome of limitations of the designer or the design process.

Premature evaluation is where problem-solvers will settle on a solution before all possibilities have been considered.  In creativity, one of the hurdles has been when problem-solvers will pursue the first solution path that presents itself rather than delay solution while considering other potential solution paths that might be more effective.  The cognitive overhead in retaining a meta-level of strategy that considers multiple solution paths is often overwhelmed in the efforts to consider all the factors in the problem itself.  Considerable practice can be required to develop good strategic maintenance of strategies as well as solution.

A final set of problems in problem-solving are the social ones: the difficulty of publicly suggesting an idea that may not be accepted, the difficulty in sharing an idea that may not get credited, the difficulty in offering help due to a perception that it may be an intrusion or unwelcome, or the difficulty in accepting help from others whether to not be a burden or to resent intrusion.  Another set of social problems have to do with different domains of expertise.  Most learning technology projects these days require multiple skill sets: writing, media production, software engineering, learning design, management, etc.  Who gets listened to? How do you coordinate this?

I suspect you recognize these problems, but of course the issue is what to do. Coming up in the next two posts: Team Design, Egoless Design, No Limits Analysis, ‘Kitchen Sink’ Analysis, Systematic Creativity, 3 Strategy Design, the (double) Double P’s, and Full Spectrum Design.  What are your ideas?

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