Articulating Through Concept Maps

In every type of role that involves creative problem solving, a critical skill is understanding the current problem space.  Ultimately creative problem solving usually involves re-framing that problem space or pulling in techniques that are not normally associated with that space.  As a result we end up throwing around pithy advice like, “Think outside the box!” and over time we come to associate creative problem solvers with rule breaking and rebelliousness.  The truth is less exciting and also much more encouraging.  Creative problem solvers–the best ones–are rigorous in understanding context, responsive to failure, and repetitive in their tactics.

Recently, in our Rapid Ideation and Creative Problem Solving course we’ve been investigating representing complexity through visualization.  This past week we looked at a Thermostat interface as a case study.  Each of us attempted to map interacting with the thermostat by identifying different mental spaces in the interface and then creating visualizations of the latent importance and associations.  Here’s an example from my own traversal through the Honeywell hole:

An interesting thing about forcing a complex system into a visualization is that you are forced to attempt to simplify and organize.  Sometimes this process can reveal underlying order or emergent patterns.  In others–like above–it serves to reinforce the chaos or cumbersome nature of the interactions.  What’s most interesting about this map is that this problem space: thermostat control, used to be so simple.  Attempting to map the process that led something that was fairly simple not long ago to become something so complex would make for an interesting addendum.  Suffice to say that this thermostat’s interface–through the addition and emphasis of technical features and customizations–has drifted very far from it’s core functionality, purpose, and audience.

As a second stage of looking at this thermostat, we mapped what an ideal concept model of this thermostat might look like (pictured below).

Taken together the two visualizations become an argument and imply a different set of design principles that emphasize clarity and practicality in how people will use the thermostat rather than featuring its technical capability and complex scheduling.  I organized these thoughts based on the implications for someone using this interface:

More generally, it’s clear that these sorts of visualizations have the power to create a common language for the current state of a problem.  The new definition and abstraction become the essential starting point for creative solutions to pivot from.