Artificial Conversations: Technology and the Scope of Design

| Shannon E. Thomas

This week’s Monday morning conversation was inspired by our recently published connection flows blogpost. We began by discussing the article itself, and then the reasons why the article was important. We wondered why designers so often didn’t seem interested in the technology behind connections, and Natalia brought up that she always felt that those sorts of technical decisions were out of scope.

This brought up an even more important question than “How do things connect?” – Why do designers often consider the technology that so often defines our designs out of our design scope?

There’s just too much to know.

To Natalia’s point, it’s not a surprise that designers often believe that technology decisions are something beyond their influence when the decision is often made before design is even engaged. Often, we take this as part of the brief. The app will run on iOS and Android and the product will connect via Bluetooth. Even when the tech decision is bad for user experience, we tend to accept them as a necessary evil. We spend many painful hours designing sub-par solutions to try to hold together a broken experience. We might even complain to each other about how much the technology sucks.

But we’ll often avoid the people who matter most – the people who made those decisions in the first place. Why is that?

Kamila mentioned that she’s always assumed that because technologists spend so much time around technology that they have a deep understanding that will always be out of a designer’s (or novice’s) grasp. It’s true. At first, it’s hard to know what questions to ask a technologist (or Google) to get answers that will help you understand the technology behind a thing.

Ariane mentioned that she struggles with this not because she’s intimidated by it, but because she’ll lose herself in the questions that only lead to more questions. While some of us are likely to draw the scope too conservatively, she might forget to draw it at all!

Our role defines our scope.

Manjari mentioned that she thought roles often set us up to think that certain things were beyond our influence. Obviously the best person to make a decision about technology would be the person with technology in their title.

Rather than allowing our role to define our curiosity, we should let it guide us to expertise. As designers, we can trust technologists to always have the best answer, or we can trust them to help us understand why the recommendation is right for the product. Asking a technologies why one answer is better than another, or what tradeoffs a solution makes, or what research was done in coming to their solution will almost always result in the designer having some knowledge that she didn’t have going into the project. Sometimes these questions might even lead to finding a better solution.

Design programs have a lot of room for improvement.

Designers considering technology outside of their scope is hardly uncommon, and so we began to ask, “What can universities do differently?” Our various backgrounds provided us with a variety of insights.

Kamila studied industrial design, and for every class had to build a product. She didn’t render a thing and then send it off to someone else to make as we often might in the digital world. Her program prepared her for this by giving her access to many different types of manufacturers where she could learn about working wood or metal or fabric.

Similarly, Natalia’s program forced her to print and cut and bind books. Working with a printshop to understand the constraints of their inks is not terribly unlike working with a developer to understand the constraints of a particular platform. But then for the digital classes, the program just required design files.

Ariane did a lot of research and wrote a lot of papers. She makes a face when she says this, wondering why they didn’t make more.

Manjari perhaps had the most relevant experience in that she would work within teams of different disciplines to create functioning prototypes.

My own school experience has led me to believe that working with someone a few years ahead of you is one of the best ways to learn. I was less intimidated to ask grad students for help than I was professors, and their recent experiences and failures were often valuable for my own understanding.

Did this conversation change anything for The Artificial? Absolutely. We’re less likely to accept technology solutions without understanding why they were made, and we’re more likely to ask questions so that we can fill out our own understanding.