Recent Media Lab grad Drew Harry and co-founder Frances Yun have launched a site called Six Questions. I recently participated and answered my six questions. Here they are.
In designing user interfaces, we aim to empower the "user" to understand and control the system at hand. Output via screens and speakers, with input from a keyboard, a touch screen or gestures. Between them, the "user" is understood to be our conscious "mind" - the logical bit of our brain that thinks it's in charge.
This "mind" is actually not nearly as "in charge" as it thinks it is. In fact, our larger and often much more wise mind - the emotional, sub-conscious, parallel-processing, pattern recognizing part of our nervous system even manipulates and deceives our conscious mind. Articulated long ago as Dual Process Theory, Kahneman formalizes them as System 1 (this vast, quick and automatic aspect of thinking) and System 2 (the small "conscious" mind that logically considers and judges).
There is a basic fitness function to having our conscious mind feel confident, whether fighting, mating, or even making the small decisions that people make to get through a day. But the confidence we are building is with the small and logical part of our minds, deceiving ourselves that things are ok when another part of ourselves might know otherwise.
This is articulated in an experiment described by Trivers in which subjects are asked to listen to a series of voices, some of which are their own. Depending on the confidence of the subjects, some tended to attribute their voice to others ... or conversely, mistake other voices as their own. The interesting thing was that the galvanic skin response that connects to our parasympathetic nervous system always reacted consistently to our own voices, even when our conscious minds were deceived. (Trivers 1985)
Whether it's the decisions we make or the assessments of how we feel, we are consistently persuading ourselves that the world is organized and coherent, and that we understand what's going on, most of the time. In fact, the world is complex and chaotic. Most of what goes on in the world -- and even in our own bodies -- is beyond the comprehension and (luckily) the control of our little minds.
Thus, good design communicates with the broader, faster, more emotional system. What we call the "flow state" or "in the zone" is just our little minds getting out of the way so that our bigger and more intuitive mind can run the show. Whether throwing a basketball or driving a car, if our logical minds were coordinating each step, it would be impossibly difficult to coordinate all of the steps. However, our little minds are "smart" enough to get out of the way when we have mastery and allow the rest of the system dominate.
Why is it then that we seem to insist on building and assessing our systems based on what our little mind thinks? Think about the testing in schools that only measures local knowledge and logical skills, or designing user interfaces around what the user is focused on like pull-down menus and the mouse pointer.
I believe that we must focus much more on creating interfaces that send information to -- and receive controls signals from -- the rest of our system. This could apply to sensors for health, assistive robots, the Internet of things, thermostats, or future vehicles.
The problem is, individually and collectively, our little minds don't like to give up control. We have to trick our minds to get out of the way sometimes. That's where deception emerges as a design pattern.
In the late 1800s, James Naismith, a pastor and a physical education teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts realized that he needed a way to deal with young kids who would become restless and unruly during the harsh New England winters. He knew they needed the exercise, collaboration and competition they got the other nine months of the year.
So Naismith invented basketball, allowing kids to exercise indoors, to compete and collaborate, all through playing this fun new game. It worked swimmingly, and quickly spread through YMCAs and became the sport it is today. My bet is that if he had called it "social ball" or "don't-beat-each-other-up ball" it probably wouldn't have been nearly the hit that it was.
Was this subtle deception immoral? Was it effective? Which part of the mind was Naismith looking to address, and which part did he find ways to speak to?
Today, we spend so much time telling our conscious and self-deceived minds what we want it to do. What if we spent more time trying to induce our minds to get out of the way, through meditation, play, prayer ... or even deception. We need to think less like industrial designers (designing for the intentions of the conscious user) and more like game designers (designing for the desires and quick, "irrational" behavior of our mind.) We need to design our medical devices, computers, vehicles and communication tools to be influenced by what we really do and think. Not just what we tell ourselves we are doing or thinking.
I think this framework first came up in a conversation with John Maeda. The original observation was that artist and scientists tend to work well together, and designers and engineers work well together, but that scientists and engineers don't work as well together, and likewise, neither do artists and designers. Engineers and designers tend to focus on utility and understand the world through observation and gathering the constraints of a problem to come up with a solution. Artists and scientists, on the other hand are inspired by nature or math, and they create through pure inner creativity and pursue expression that is more connected to things like truth or beauty than something so imperfect as mere utility. Which is to say, there are many more ways to divide the brain than into left and right hemispheres.
However, I think a lot of the most interesting and impactful creative works tend to require all the use of all four quadrants. Many of the faculty at the Media Lab work in the dead center of this grid--or as I like to call it, this compass--or perhaps they lean in one direction, but they're able to channel skills from all four quadrants. Neri Oxman, one of our faculty members who recently created The Silk Pavilion, told me that she is both an artists and a designer but switches between the modes as she works on an idea. And to look at The Silk Pavilion, it's clear she could easily qualify as either a scientist or engineer, too.
I think that there are a variety of practices and ways of thinking we can use to get to the center of this compass. The key is to pull these quadrants as close together as possible. An interdisciplinary group would have a scientist, an artist, a designer, and an engineer working with each other. But this only reinforces the distinctions between these disciplines. And it's much less effective than having people who use all four quadrants, as the project or problem requires.
The tyranny of traditional disciplines and functionally segregated organizations fail to produce the type of people who can work with this creativity compass, but I believe that in a world where the rate of change increases exponentially, where disruption has become a norm instead of an anomaly, the challenge will be to think this way if we want to effectively solve the problems we face today, much less tomorrow.
Update: A good book on this topic. Gold, Rich. The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. Rich calls the quadrants the "four hats of creativity".
Originally posted on LinkedIn.