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The Ingredients of Innovation: Framing, Empathy, Play, Insights, Constraints and Synthesis

Sunday, May 13th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

Here in Mexico, I’m teaching a course in innovation. The focus of my class is on “customer relevance” – what makes a product have emotional and lasting resonance with a customer?

We’re working through eight or nine methods that can be applied in the context of research, synthesis, and prototyping. All of the ideas fall back on the core themes of Framing, Empathy, Play, Insights, Constraints and Synthesis. To me, these are the ingredients of design – the structures upon which a thoughtful approach to design lies.

Framing describes the perspective taken when approaching a new and novel design task. Framing is a theory in cognitive psychology, by which a person interprets their experiences through a particular lens. This happens naturally, and all of the time – it’s a way by which we make sense of the world around us. The trouble is that, while any particular frame reveals new and interesting content, it also serves to conceal different information. In a way, a frame shapes our understanding of the world around us by creating a level of dynamism to fact. We can become more aware of our frame by considering the assumptions we are making about a given event, experience, action or activity. Once we are aware of the frames we use to make sense of situations, we can – if we want to, and if we try really hard – reframe a situation, to view it from another perspective. Are you at the airport, annoyed with the TSA and bemoaning their lack of regard for your human rights and dignity? Try, for a second, and it will be hard, to reframe the entire situation from their point of view. That means that you try to consider their perspective on life; the reason they have their job; the motivation that drives them to work every morning; what they think of you; what they think of the policies that they have to follow; and so-on.

I’ve written a great deal about Empathy. Simplistically, it’s the idea of feeling what someone else feels, which is, of course, impossible. But the aspiration for empathy is not impossible, and, as Ralph Caplan describes, “focuses on the user as a person, not just a consumer.” Considering a “user” as a “person” means as a whole person – with complicated emotions, challenging beliefs, and peculiar ways of behaving. This demands a design approach that treats them as a whole person – as a person who can think and feel.

Play is the stuff Michael Schrage describes as “the most rational behavior for innovators.” It’s the ability to try things with a light heart, understanding that the intent of a playful stance is not productivity or efficiency, but instead, exploration and joy. Being playful typically requires looking at things in new ways – forcing things that don’t connect to connect, and seeing what happens – or making obvious things that are usually unspoken or taboo.  A result of a playful perspective that attempts to reframe a situation is usually a controversial take on a situation, and so it will be desired by some and rejected by others. This is a simplistic illustration of the risks associated with the process of innovation

Insights are clear, deep, meaningful perceptions into human behavior. They are intentionally provocative, and – like a reliance on a playful stance – they result in statements that are controversial and potentially risky. Insights are derived as assumptions, built on top of interpretations, built on top of observations, built on top of raw data: they are multiple-times removed from the realities of the world, and in this way, they act as launching points for identification of constraints.

Constraints describe the boundary conditions of a problem. They offer the designer a series of subject elements upon which to build a solution. Constraints, according to Eames, are “one of the few effective keys to the design problem,” and I tend to agree. Constraints can be (and often are) completely arbitrary: how much time and money do you have? What is the existing brand language? For interaction design solutions, constraints are largely social, cultural, and emotional, and these are subjective qualities. Interpretation is necessary to understand them, and a point of view is necessary for interpretation.

Synthesis is the process of making meaning through inference-based sensemaking. It ties together the above – Framing, Empathy, Play, Insights, and Constraints – into a process that attempts to “create objects having necessary characteristics… requirements for knowledge for synthesis are not universality and minimality but rather individuality and diversity.” [pdf link] What that means is that, as a result of synthesis, we’ll identify extremely specific design ideas that are objectively relevant within the subjective constraints that have been established. Synthesis is an active process, one that forms new knowledge, and as applied in design, it’s a form of inference-based knowledge production: ideas that might be wrong. It’s about dreaming.

Here’s a presentation I sometimes use to describe these six ideas. [pdf link]

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