Positive Design


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Traditional UX approaches are based on problem finding and solving. The focus on dysfunctions contributes to sapped morale, political games and decision paralysis in multidisciplinary teams. Positive design is an alternative strength-based method which promotes positive change and innovation through human-centric cooperation and collaboration across organisational boundaries.

10-Minutes talk presented at the UX Australia 2012 Conference, on Friday 31 August 2012.

Published in: Design, Technology
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  • love this! focussing on the positive rather than using the negative to break-down, undermine, control, generate fear - design can only improve with this change of thought process. great concept. spread the love indeed!
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Positive Design

  2. 2. FINDING PROBLEM SOLVINGThe traditional approach to consulting is quite simple: Go out looking for issues andformulate ways to solve them. Design is a type of consulting - regardless of whether youwork internally or externally to an organisation - and designers pride themselves on theirability to find and solve problems.
  3. 3. DISCOURSE ACTION <>Discourse and action often go hand-in-hand, and language shapes the nature ofinterpersonal relationships. It is particularly interesting to look at the language employed bysome of the UX industry’s most prominent commentators in their articles and books:
  4. 4. FLASH IS 99% BAD HOW YOUR WEBSITE’S CRAPPY USABILITY IS COSTING YOU SALES TOP 10 REASONS THE NEW GOOGLE NEWS SUCKSA friend of mine calls them the “UX Grouches”. And they seem to have a large following in theindustry. Looking at my Twitter timeline, this is what I often hear my UX colleagues say:
  5. 5. FLAWED STINKY CRAP SUCKS DOUCHEY #FAIL STUPID BAD DUMB USELESS BROKENThe focus on problems is arguably an artefact from the industrial era, serving the logic ofever improving productivity and efficiency. Strong rhetoric, basically telling people that theirbaby is ugly, is used to get a message across, and serves the logic of obtaining control (orpower struggle).It’s often forgotten that behind issues, problems and dysfunctions, there is smart, hard-working and well-intentioned PEOPLE. No matter how detachedly the data is looked at or howpolitely pitfalls are explained, people’s emotions are still going to be impacted. Studiessuggest that the constant focus on dysfunctions results in sapped morale, disengagementand defensive collaboration, ultimately detracting from the original goal of improving things.In other words, detecting deficiencies might help improve the “what is”, but combined withnegative language it hardly helps to creating the emotionally-safe environment conducive tothe unbridled generative thinking necessary to fully elaborate the “what could be”.
  6. 6. SKILLS TIME & RESOURCES PROCESSES CULTUREIn effect, if you scratch the surface, all UX problems boil down to one or any combination ofthese aspects: Skills, Time & Resources, Processes, and Organisational Culture. In order toachieve meaningful, durable and sustainable user experience practices, designers need toengage in promoting positive organisational change along these axes.But what do our discourse and actions say about our own culture?Which brings up the next point: Frames of Reference.
  7. 7. }f{ s A1 A2 A3 PROBLEM ANALYSIS ALTERNATIVES SETSuccessful UX design can only happen through cross-boundary, multidisciplinarycollaboration.Many professionals - and managers - are trained to think analytically. To put simply (andprobably simplistically, my apologies), analytical thinking involves looking at a given problemset through a number of lenses to figure out a number of pre-determined alternatives. This isgood in certain circumstances because it allows for quick decision-making based on arepeatable, predictable and reliable process. Thus, a manager’s set of lenses might includetools like economic analysis, risk assessment, time value of money, etc. Even Western doctorsare trained to think this way. Psychiatrists, for instance, refer to a manual of mental disorders- DSM IV - to infer, from a given diagnostic, the appropriate treatments and drugs.When analytical thinking is applied to design, the designer’s lenses might include stuff likedesign principles, heuristics, guidelines, standards, etc; and the alternatives might resolve tothings like design patterns. While this may make managers and other team members happyby minimising the uncertainties of the often chaotic design process, and providingconsistent, repeatable and predictable outcomes, the downside is that it also invariablyresults in formulaic and mediocre designs.Designers, in fact, are trained to think synthetically (as opposed to analytically) to generateNEW alternatives (as opposed to pre-cooked ones), which is the whole point behind DesignThinking.
  8. 8. ♦♦♦ { s f } s s }f{ }f{ ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ { s f } ♥♥♥In the context of multidisciplinary team work, we have people with different frames ofreference formulating varied - and sometimes conflicting - alternatives from the sameproblem set.In politically-charged organisations, this typically leads to decision paralysis. In the contextof a power struggle, the top dog wins. And this is ultimately the reason why insightfulrecommendations and thoughtful designs are not implemented.
  9. 9. POSITIVE DESIGNPositive design offers a dialectic alternative to the traditional approach to design as it is “lessfocused on the detection of errors associated with gaining control and more concerned withhuman-centred design associated with the shaping of thriving organisations and a hopefulfuture.” (1)(1) Design with a Positive Lens: An Affirmative Approach to Designing Information andOrganizations by: M.Avital, K. Lyytinen, R. J. Boland, B. Butler, D. Dougherty, M. Fineout, W. Jansen, N. Levina, W.Rifkin and J.Venable
  10. 10. POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY STRENGTH-BASED AFFIRMATIVE INQUIRYPositive Design builds on the work by Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who, inthe 80’s and 90’s devised a new branch in psychology called Positive Psychology. They startedwith an observation: All the psychology research at that time was centred on mentaldisorders; and a question: What are the mental, physical and spiritual processes that makepeople happy? Positive psychologists are therefore concerned with four points: positiveexperiences, enduring psychological traits, positive relationships, and positive institutions.From Positive psychology, a number of strength-based approaches were devised, such asstrength-based parenting, strength-based leadership, strength-based management, and evenPositive Economics!More recently, a strength-based approach to Change Management was developed, calledAffirmative Inquiry. I invite all designers endeavouring to promote positive change to look atthe above topics.I’d like to stress two key characteristics of Positive Design:
  11. 11. POSITIVEFirst, is that it is, well, positive. :-)
  12. 12. 70% 30%Imagine that, in the context of a user-centred design process, research was conducted and anumber of issues were revealed. The exact nature of the issues is not important for thepurposes of this explanation. It could be something like - to use current UX language - “70%of the website’s content is CRAP”, or “70% of the users dropped out of the STUPID checkoutprocess”.Though success and failure are sometimes related, looking at one doesn’t tell us much aboutthe other. So, what made the other 30% of the content good, or 30% of the users succeed?The truth is that in every organisation - large or small - there’s always a small group ofpeople, or a full product team, or even an entire division doing things right. From the users’perspective, what about them could help others to succeed?
  13. 13. 70% 30% SKILLS TIME & RESOURCES PROCESSES CULTUREPositive Design will still make good use of insights stemming from problem finding, but willfocus on spreading success stories across the board.
  14. 14. PARTICIPATORYThe second key characteristic of Positive Design is that it is participatory.
  15. 15. WE VS. THEMThe participatory approach in Positive Design extends the scope of participation beyondusers (typically the case in participatory design and co-design approaches) to embrace theentire stakeholder community (team-members, managers, directors, partners, providers, etc)in the process.Positive Design creates a safe space and environment where people can come together, havedialogues, and engage in storytelling so they can make sense of the world, resolve conflicts,and form agreements.
  16. 16. ♦♦♦ { s f } s s }f{ }f{ ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ ♠ ♣ { s f } ♥♥♥So, to sum up, remember the diagram representing the disconnect between people fromdifferent frames of reference and endeavours?Positive Design turns the thing on its head:
  17. 17. { s f } ♥ s ♥ ♥ s ♥ }f{ ♥ ♥ ♥ }f{ ♥ ♥ ♥ { s f }The problems are no longer at the centre of the stage.Positive Design focuses on bringing the stakeholders together to jointly engage in ideasharing, identification of a common ground, and reaching consensus. Its participatory natureenables people to identify with the common purpose and engage in joint identity building. Agenerative design process is made possible through a common frame of reference and ashared vocabulary.
  18. 18. TRADITIONAL POSITIVE ANALYTIC SYNTHETIC JUDGMENTAL APPRECIATIVE DEFICIENCY-SEEKING VALUE-SEEKING CONCLUSION-SEEKING OPEN-ENDED GOAL-DRIVEN PURPOSE-DRIVEN PREVENT VICIOUS CYCLES PROMOTE VIRTUOUS CYCLESAnd to wrap up, here’s a short comparison table between the traditional approach andPositive Design. Positive Design is not the panacea, and it’s probably unsuited for somesettings (command-and-control types of organisations come to mind), but looking at thingsfrom a positive lens whenever possible will undoubtedly promote more meaningful, fulfilling,empowering and humane work experiences for everyone involved, and arguably betterdesigns, if you accept the notion that design is not finite, but rather an open-ended, ongoingprocess.Spread the love!
  19. 19. THANKYOU RENATO FEIJÓ @rfeijowww.blackbean.com.au