Designing a moment not a product

January 29, 2023

I ask many questions — why is this design necessary? what problem should it solve? for whom? — when evaluating design work. How can we expect to produce good designs without understanding the answers to these (and similar) questions? It is similarly unreasonable to expect good design feedback from an evaluator who does not share this understanding.

I'm embarrassed to admit I recently made this critical mistake, evaluating a friend's work while assuming I knew the answer to these questions. I was wrong.

Like many of my design stories, it begins with a friendly conversation over coffee. This time the friend is Richard. Richard's father is diabetic and recently had his foot amputated. With joy, Richard explained to me how he was designing a prosthetic for his father that precisely mimicked many characteristics of a human foot.

"Why do you think approximating a human foot is the best way to design a prosthetic?" I asked.

Richard seemed confused. I thought I asked a brilliant question; he clearly did not. If the goal is effective mobility, surely we could not jump to the conclusion that a human foot was by default the ideal design.

The only problem, effective mobility was not the primary goal. The true goal was to design a moment of wholeness, one where his disability disappeared into the background.

That moment is a wedding. Richard's sister is getting married soon. His father's amputation has fundamentally changed his ability to participate, and his forever prosthetic will not arrive in time.

Although on its surface a prosthetic is meant for mobility, this prosthetic needed to be natural. Yes, Richard's father needed to be able to walk down the aisle, but he also needed to wear the same shoes he had already selected and stand with the same posture he had before the surgery. Richard's father knows how to do all of these with a human foot, so approximating the human foot with the prosthetic was an appropriate place to start.

Designing a prosthetic for maximum mobility might have resulted in an impressive feat of engineering, but it most surely would be the wrong solution for the wrong problem.

Take this story as a warning and make sure you know the problem you are solving before you spend resources (either stakeholders' or your own) creating the wrong solution.

© Copyright 2023 Casey Yates