Sunday, June 29, 2008

Slow design (part 1)

The title phrase ("slow design") occurred to me halfway through writing this piece. I was intrigued to find out that it already has a wikipedia page, a manifesto, and an organization behind it, although one that seems... slow... to get off the ground.

A perspective that occasionally surfaced in the Creativity and Rationale in Software Design workshop was the idea that time spent intentionally working through the rationale for a design could have many benefits, for creativity and otherwise. This is so even if such time is limited, if it only covers small portions of the terrain of a design, and even -- perhaps especially -- if it goes against the grain of the normal conversational flow. Sometimes it is necessary and desirable to do something different than we normally do, even if it feels difficult and unnatural.

I see this very much in the vein of what Palus and Horth call "aesthetic competencies" -- slowing down the looking, paying attention to details and nuances, careful crafting. Normally, in design conversations, we go so fast, building on each other's words and sometimes sketches, excitedly questioning and arguing. I do this myself, I love being in that mode, and there is nothing wrong with it. It will always be the dominant mode of design conversations. Pulling away from it to do something deliberate, like capturing and representing rationale, can feel almost painful. But not everything is covered, captured, or elicited in this normal manner. Like the conversation at the workshop, our normal ways of talking and doing are so much on the fly; things get missed, or too quickly forgotten. Sometimes just taking the time to ask questions, make the diversity of possible answers explicit, and ask the questions behind the questions (like the root rationale question: "Why are we doing this?") can make a difference in understanding, insight, and creativity. We see what each other is saying in ways that the normal flow doesn't allow.

So doing design rationale should be handled not as a duty, but as something special. For this limited time, we're going to set aside our normal ways of interacting and do something different, requiring a different kind of attention. If handled well, carefully creating a representation of rationale can open up different doors and different ways of seeing and talking. We get a different experience of working through and working out, especially when working through a collective visual artifact (Compendium maps can be an example of this).

For this to be generative, so much depends on the (temporary) commitment of the people involved, because there's so much variance in how it can happen, and in the patience, skill in the crafting, willingness to engage and pay attention. Creativity often means reaching down or being struck by something deeper, something out of the ordinary, and that often comes out of slow working out and working through (as much as it can also come from the usual headlong conversational rush).

(Continued in Part 2)

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