DonnaM » Blog Archive » Thinking about thinking

Thinking about thinking

Shhh…don’t tell anyone, but this is a bit of a ramble (it’s a good one though)

I just finished reading the latest instalment in Christopher Fahey’s series about user research and combined with a recent discussion with a potential interviewer about my interests, a journal article I recently wrote, a presentation I’m doing next week, came out here as a post about some important stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while.

In the past year or so I’ve been doing a lot more teaching – via mentoring, speaking & writing – which means I’ve been spending loads of time thinking about how to teach people to do what I do.

I’ve always had difficulty with the idea that teaching methods teaches people how to design. It never made sense to me. But our industry’s focus on methods & techniques made me figure I was just being my odd self and that if I taught methods well enough, people would get it.

But I’ve now spent enough time thinking about this to realise my gut feeling was right all along. And I’m going to be bold and tell you that methods and techniques are a poor and very small part of a designer’s tool-set. They just happen to be easy to define, teach and communicate, so they proliferate in our teaching and writing.

The real key is in teaching people how to think. How to observe the right things. How to mush together the outcomes from techniques in their brains, shake them around and have something good emerge. How to make creative leaps and know they are good.

I haven’t seen so much of this idea written down in our field, but there are some gems – Christopher’s user research series, Peter’s discussion of ‘IA thinking‘ in the closing plenary at the IA Summit, Shane’s ‘deep thought‘ article from a few years ago. Yes, there are probably loads more, but they are swamped by the description-of-a-method articles.

So where does this leave me? I’m in the middle of writing a book, planning a bunch more speaking/workshops and just about to start a new contract in which I lead a new user-centred design effort. In doing these things, I’m not going to fall into the method-as-answer trap. I’m going to do my utmost to help people realise that thinking is important, that creativity is valuable and that methods are just a small subset of the arrows in our quiver.

3 Responses to “Thinking about thinking”

  1. Christopher Fahey Says:

    I went to art school, where we learned to think by constantly talking about each other’s work (and talking about work out in the real world via art history). This might be a great model for interaction design education: constant critique and dialogue in order to train designer to think about how they can defend their work, find flaws in their own and other people’s work. Flexing the critical thinking muscle.

  2. Alex Says:

    Be careful there, Donna; people might interpret this to mean that skills is better than discipline, that good people is the key to success, and that without the right mindset any methodology is a waste of time. :)

  3. Graham Storrs Says:


    I wish you hadn’t mentioned ‘deep thought’. I’ve now got to spend the rest of the day trying to get the disturbing image of Shane in the shower out of my mind!

    If you’re looking for more references, there’s a paper I gave at an air traffic control conference in about 1992. The paper was all about prototyping for requirements capture and it suggests that producing low-fidelity proptotypes allows designers to be more creative and to explore (and then try out) ideas that might, prima facie, seem too risky. However, the point the paper makes is that using a method that is appropriate to the system development task actually gives designers the space and the tools to do the thinking they need – both about the ‘real’ issues behind the requirements (my personal hobby-horse) and the optimal solutions.