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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Jabe Bloom on the Evolution of Design Critique

Jabe Bloom on the Evolution of Design Critique


1. Jabe thank you very much for being interviewed by InfoQ, can you just quickly give the viewers a little run down about yourself, so they understand a little bit about where are you from and how you’ve been ended up to Agile 2014.

Sure, so right now I’m the Chief Flow Officer at a company called Praxisflow, started with Kevin Behr about few months ago and I’m getting a PhD at Carnegie Mellon in Design, and I came to Agile this year to talk on the Design Track again and my talk in the Design Track at least was about Critique and the changing nature of Critique itself. And I’ll also be talking with Adam Yuret later, we have a talk on how to do value stream maps and understanding flow better in systems.


2. Excellent, so in relation to the presentation you’ve just done, Design Critique, what if you had to summarise it, just very quickly in a couple of sentences, how would you summarise the conceptx you are trying to get across in that presentation?

I think one of the problems with Critique, when you go to actually do research on Critique you find that the literature it’s quite sparse on it, there is not a lot written about the process of Critique, even though it’s probably considered one of the two major pieces of design, so there is design and there is Critique of design.


3. Can you just quickly explain what Critique means in general?

Critique in general has, in past has meant, the criticism of a design. So an attempt of one expert to inform a designer of the mistakes they’re making, could be kind of general Critique. The problem of course I think, well, know the problem, the reason why is not a lot written about this, is because always is been passed down through master apprentice relationships, so I went to school and I learned fine art photography from two master photographers, they couldn’t describe how to do Critique, but I did Critique for 4 years, so I have what we call tacit knowledge of Critique and I think many designers do. So that’s great and if you want to go to Design School or art school you can learn Critique that way.

I think what’s changing in design now is where we are trying to start doing co-design and co-creation and it means that we are embracing truly multi disciplinary teams and all of a sudden when you had people in the room who haven’t gone to art school for 4 to 6 years to learn this apprentice model, and you can teach them this Critique (that fast) using that model, so we need to transform from this tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge so we can train people on how to effectively interact or speak about Critique and Design.

That’s one side of it, the other side of it is just this idea that because we are doing co-creation now, Critique isn’t just about improving the design, it’s also about learning to create a shared vocabulary, a shared design vocabulary, so that people can actually talk about the design effectively if they are all going to talk about it at the same time. So the talk was largely based on this idea that there are these two sides of it, one is training non designers on how to do Critique and second part is really saying to designers it’s partially responsibly now to not only create a design but to create a language of design and to share it with the team and make sure everyone can actually talk together about the design effectively.


4. And what about core element that you think assist in that process?

The interesting thing is Critique in general has almost always been a model because of the master apprentice model and expert model, so it’s always been in general, in school you are critiqued by some of who knows more than you do. So we are really moving away from that model with co-design, so it means that we need to figure out a couple different formats of Critique I think. We can become more effective, and today in my workshop I taught a technique called Critical Response Process which is used by choreographers to talk about dance and then we talked about a new type of Critique that I’m doing research on, which right now we are calling Cognitive Displacement Critique and I can describe that a little bit, and then finally we talked about Cognitive Ages Model of Critique called Ritual Descent.

And really the reason we describe these multiple different types of Critique is one of the other theories that we have is that, if we use Design Thinking we actually have changing needs of Critique as the design moves forward through the process. So in the beginning of the process we expect to have a very loose design and at the end of the process we expect to have a much tighter design and so what we are Critiquing as the design evolves actually changes. So these three different types of Critique would be more useful during different phases of the design lifecycle. Right, so in the beginning you want to have things that are more open and at the end you want to have things that really tightening up the design, so each of these ones kind of works in different way like that.


5. And which ones match which part of the process?

I listed them in order I think of how I think they best applied, so the critical response processes quite good at the beginning when you want to do divergent design so you want to open up the space and the designers at that point are often asking questions like: “Do I understand the problem, what else should I know about the problem, does my design start addressing the problem?”. The center one towards the middle we tend to have a double diamond shape in design, so we do diverge, converge, diverge, converge and the center first convergence, I like this model that we’ve been playing with, which is called Cognitive Displacement, and it’s a very simple model but what we do is we have 4 roles.

The first role is the original designer, which we refer to it is the observer, and then we have the fake designer who is preferably an actual expert in design but not the person who did the design, then we have a critic and we have a scribe, and so what’s happens is the person who’s done the design gives their design without communicating to the other designer (anything) and the fake designer now is required to present and interact with the third party critic as if it was his own design. And so the designer at this point gets to watch how someone else might explain the rationality and the thinking behind their design, and this is all based on, the ideas are kind of based on some ideas from Daniel Dennett about Theory of Mind and the way that we lend Theory of Mind to objects in particular. So he basically says like: “When we interact with basic objects we have a physical intention so we say like this thing like a baseball bat, it’s heavy, I can hit things with it, it has the design is intended to hit”.

It gets slightly more complicated when we have a design stand towards them, so we look at them and we go like: “Somebody design this?”, the designer must have had an intent. So I should understand this object through the designers kind of intent. If I can figure out what he intended from me to do, then I know how to use it correctly and in the final one, would be what he calls the intentional stance, and the intentional stance is this idea that, like if you play chess against a computer you assume that it actually, you assume like you are playing against a person, you assume that it actually has intent. Right, there are different levels of intent and the idea of this kind of Cognitive Displacement thing is that you get to give your idea to someone else and then watch how they think you are thinking, so that you can understand your own kind of thought process better so that you can improve the design from that aspect.


6. And that’s for the convergence?

That’s for the first convergence, so that’s a measure of coherence and it’s a new way to, so when you are coming into that first convergence you then want to diverge again, so it’s an interesting little combination, and the final one Ritual Descent is based on this idea that we want to harden the design at the end, and what I mean by harden the design is the team should have an opportunity to hear all of the negative potential comments from a safe space, is why we call it Ritual Descent, so one of the ways I intend to explain it is, if you play hockey, while you are playing hockey you can hit people in the face, like in the rink, but when you leave the rink if you hit the same guy in the face in the street you get arrested, so it’s a ritualized game space. In the same way we want to have a great kind of ritualized safe game space for people to be very negative towards a design, so that the team can hear all the potential objection to the design in that safe space as opposed to going to an executive or going to a customer and having them say: “It’s obviously that this won’t work blah, blah, blah, blah, right?”. So they have a chance to figure out those objections beforehand. So these are the three different kind of styles that I taught in this workshop.


7. And so how do they interface once you’ve got that feedback in the final, then how did that process on from there?

So I teach and I taught in this workshop one last idea, it’s what we call the Active Decision Model, and so the Active Decision Model basically says that you have a scribe for all of these kind of interactions, somebody who is writing down the Critiques and you write down on a spread sheet or you can use stickies or something like that, you write down all the objections, and then we have 4 categories of ways of thinking about the objections: ignore, so you say that is a valid Critique but I’m not going to do anything about it right now. So you ignore and then you do research best practice so I want to go out, I don’t want to invest in figuring out a new way of doing this, I just want to go out and figure out what everybody else does and use that, steal it.

Innovation, so actually say well that’s the thing that we actually want to own, that’s the thing that design is critical, the critical piece of the design, so if you take a piece of Critique, you say we want to innovate, we want to figure out an actual new way of solving that and then last one is what we call dis-solve, so that will be, well that’s a good objection but the easiest way for us to solve this is to remove it from the design altogether, remove that element from the design and then redesign it so we don’t have to have it there at all. So those are the four different kind of resolutions, so we have teams process that, and then just go down the innovation column and you think what you innovate on, iterate on the design and then you do it again. And so these different levels of Critique, the kind of way that we use it, is we would do it in a design studio setting where we might do 4 or 5 rounds of design studio in a single day, so you do all these different styles of Critique in one day with the hope at the end that you have kind of a harden completely solid design by the end to start moving forward.


8. Excellent, so what are some of the pitfalls that you see people when (I assume you’ve taken people through this process), what are some of the pitfalls that you see, some of the common areas where they might struggle a bit?

I think the one thing is, designers in particular are still getting used to this idea of collaboration in an interesting way, right. Like it’s interesting to go in to places that have been doing Agile for a long time, you will see the cross functional teams which generally means maybe like software engineers, QA people, Product Owners, they have actually figured out how to deal with this kind of, when I call the problem of expertise like this idea that not everybody can be a generalist, but some people have to be experts but that causes problems and how to we kind of relate to each other if somebody has an expertise and I need to understand it, and they kind of figured out ways of balancing that. In the design world it’s still assumed that the designers are experts and that they should be left to do the experting, they should be left to do that thing.

And so they are still learning I think how to interact with that, in most firms that we go into there is still a division between the creative and the production side, right? So somebody makes a design and then it’s built in an Agile way, and so getting that interaction to start where you have to kind of like start saying to the designers again: “It’s fine for you have expertise but you have to share enough of your expertise with your team to actually have a conversation with you”, and they can actually share the responsibility of creating effective design. It’s still challenging and the number one way I see it is this general, um, in a lot of places the designer wants to hold on to the design until it’s done, and in Agile we’ve very much want to have people, especially designers show it to us early so we can change course early. And getting that balance right still it’s quite hard and even with a good Critique process people want to critique the result as opposed to the flow.

Katherine: So it’s encouraging people to stay with that process and going through it to its completion and trust it.

Yep, yep. And show early, like literally, I mean, you know, in most ways that we are educated, we are educated to show people the final result and expect that the criticism should be minimal because we’ve removed all the things that should be criticized, right? Whereas in this process and in LeanUX and in kind of AgileUX and these new ideas, the idea is: you don’t try to remove all the problems, you try to get the most cohesive thing you can do in a short period of time, show it to other people and then talk about what problems you find in it together, so that everybody understands how we…. So it is much, it’s kind of the classic, it is as much important in design these days that people understand how you got to the end as they understand the end. If they don’t understand how you got there, they still don’t understand the design in general I think.


9. In summary, then, what would you say to people that are viewing this what are the core benefits for designers to suffer through this process and to stay with that process, what would you say: “Look, do it because of this”?

I think in general the real benefit that I’ve seen for teams at the end of it is: without this kind of early interaction with design, without an understanding and a way for the non designers to communicate about what their intentions for the design are, or even to have an intention towards the design. Often you’ll get kind of the “I knew this wouldn’t work” or “That’s obviously stupid…..I can believe we build it” type conversations, right? Like, conversations where people are sandbagging basically, they know it’s not going to work so they don’t put the.., where as when we engage developers, engineers, Product Owners, people early enough in this process and we give them the outlet to actually get their dumb ideas out there too, right? Like the answer is that what we are trying to do is, a lot of this stuff is literally kind of suck all the dumb ideas out of the team and process them before that we actually, so that then we can start from this place where we go: “We got all the dumb ideas out of the way? Great, now we can actually think together!”, and the result of it is that at the end, I find people tend to be much happier and much more committed to getting the work done, not externally motivated but internally motivated, they’ve been part of creating this design, they understand what it is, they can communicate with each other effectively about their intentions and what they want for it, and it’s not somebody else thing that they are just building, is their thing, the team’s thing and that to me is critical for getting stuff done in a quick, efficient, interesting way.

Katherine: Thank you!

You are welcome!

Oct 30, 2014