SXSW 2012: The Science of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea

Ben McAllister (@benmcallister)
Frog Design, Assoc Creative Dir

#SXDangerous

Presentation Description

The business world is increasingly enamored with design. Business leaders look to designers for guidance on everything from product innovation to corporate strategy. While designers and business people may bring different perspectives to the table, they share one common language: research.

But research can be dangerous. It often provides easy answers that go unquestioned because the research feels like science. What if we’ve put too much trust in research? What about the aspects of design and product development that are important, but hard to measure? Where does research end and design judgment begin?

In this talk, frog Associate Strategy Director Ben McAllister explores these questions and takes a hard look at the role of research in design. Drawing from not only design, but also economics and the philosophy of science, Ben confronts the conventional wisdom around design research, offering a new vision of how research can inspire creativity and guide decision making.

Presentation Notes

“Strategy” is a pretentious word and idea. Ben used to have a title with the word “Strategy” in it, and it was always a challenge. The word strategy comes from the Greek word “general” and breaks down to “to lead” and “that which is spread out.” But Strategy is really just about Leadership and Uncertainty. All humans do not like uncertainty, but without uncertainty there is no need for leadership. If you know what is going to happen, and have the perfect information, then you have no need for strategy.

Research is about informing decisions, but not everyone will agree. In regards to Mad Men the following are still true: Agency life hasn’t changed, but agency work has. Advertising agencies used to be a much more creative world, and they were highly trusted for their advice. However, now this creative world has marginalized. The word “The Research” bothers Ben. It implies the research has its own voice, and cannot be interpreted any other way. It wasn’t about ambitiousness, it was about a clear represented answer. Scientism is the act of using science terms to trick people and create a level of uncertainty (such as people in lab coats smoking cigarets as an advertisement). Scientism is a con, and it is cartoon science as it misguides you on what science really is.

With science you have certainty, objectivity, and progress. The problem is that we take Science and easily lump it in with Research although not all Research is Science. On one end of the spectrum of Research we have “Hard Sciences” (Laws), in the middle is “Social Sciences” (Experiments), and on the other end “Looking at Stuff” (Design World). But even Hard Science Scientists are not absolutely sure of anything (See: Richard Feynman, who admitted this). Even with the Great Depression people are still asking why it started, and why it ended.

Confirmation Bias is when you do research to find research that match your beliefs, and then you find more and more, and then you count is as fact although there is a whole slue of other science for the other side.
Flip Flop Rhythm is when one person says something is good for you, and then someone else says it is bad for you. This happens in nutrition and medication a lot.

We need to approach everything with a level of skepticism, and don’t take it to heart. As well, always keep an open mind that anything you do could be wrong. We need to be honest about where the value of design comes from. It’s dangerous whenever a client asks us to prove why we design the way we do. Sure, science can provide us with an easy answer. The value of what research provides comes from the person doing the research or the person interpreting the data. Research should be used to inform decisions, but not make them for us.

What kind of business do you want to be in? Do you want to be in the business of leading people through uncertainty, or in the business of following directions?

Posted in SXSW 2012.

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