Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Fundamental Nature of Problem Solving

Wisdom Seeker from halfsatori.com
One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. - The monk ascended the path at varying rates of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at variable speeds with many pauses along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed.  (Source; Scientific American Magazine - June 1961)

One of the exercises we do in the Design Thinking workshops is a story problem which involves a monk who takes a journey up and down a mountain. The problem is to prove that there is one point on the mountain which the monk passes at the same time of day during the ascending and descending trips. For most people, solving the problem is very difficult because they don't choose to reframe the problem visually. They apply the tools of logic which they have been taught in school and attempt to deduce an answer numerically, based on time and distance traveled.

There is a "mathematical" method to solve the problem, using a graph, which Nathaniel Highstein illustrated on his Reflections on Teaching blog. He states:

"I love this problem because the answer becomes totally clear when you make a time vs. elevation graph – and the answer violates nearly everyone’s expectations and leads to a surprise!"
Time-Position Graph

I love this problem because solving it requires reframing; Making a word problem into a picture problem. This illustrates how different thinking styles are applicable to different types of problems. Another way to solve it is to break a conceptual block and imagine the monk doing the journeys up and down simultaneously. They will meet themselves somewhere on the mountain.

Murai Hodaka meets herself.
In many cases a "problem" exists precisely because there are ambiguities and unknowns. Much of what we are taught about problem solving relates to "finding the unknown" or "solving for x". The real challenges start when the equations are non-linear, the answers are imaginary numbers or there a many inter-related variables. In other words; when the behavior of the system is un-predictable.

There is another aspect to this problem solving thing. It is a skill, which can be learned and therefore taught. Much of teaching these days is concerned with finding effective ways to teach problem solving skills - so that students can discover the answers for themselves.  The body of material on this is huge and growing daily. What is even more interesting are the parallels between the methods of Design Thinking and Problem Based Learning. This discovery is partially what led me to begin to think of Design Thinking as a method of learning rather than a method of problem solving. If you already knew everything you needed to know to solve the problem, it wouldn't be a problem, would it?

It's also why Design Thinking involves brilliant detective work and a lot of background knowledge.

The game's afoot!
(From Dee Garretson's Historical Mysteries and Romantic Suspense blog)

Monday, October 20, 2014

A tribute to John Marshall

Recently, I was involved in a somewhat philosophical conversation about the relationship between Product and Industrial Design, specifically regarding why one typically resides in schools of Engineering and the other schools of Art and was reminded of John Marshall, who passed away several years ago after a very difficult battle with cancer.

John was a remarkable individual; Genuine, authentic, passionate and extremely talented. He founded the Industrial Design program at BYU in 1967 and taught there for 41 years, first in the Art Department, and then in the College of Engineering when the program was moved there.  He also taught design in Hong Kong, Israel and Switzerland and practiced it at Hewlett Packard.  What many may not realize is how ubiquitous his work was in electrical engineering circles.

Growing up and working in Palo Alto, I was unknowingly exposed to John's work very early, both when I worked in HP's Prototype Model Shop at the Stanford Park Division and at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, who's labs were stuffed full of HP test gear.

Here are a couple of samples of John's HP product renderings;

Signal Generator
Compare these with some actual HP test gear and the family resemblances are striking.

HP 8656A
HP 8570A
John insisted that his students learned and understood the inseparable connection between form and function. He also knew that the tools of engineering could also be forms of art.

Lest anyone think John was only about circles and rectangles, he also did landscapes, cars and the occasional chicken;

His influence and passion are deeply missed. I regret not having gotten to know him better.

As a further tribute to John's vision and passion for good design; Back in 2011 Ziba's Industrial Design Director, Paul Backett published an article in Core77 entitled Designing the Ideal Industrial Design Program wherein he wrote of BYU's Industrial Design program;

"Less well-known than many American design programs, BYU continually impresses with solid, unflashy but well-considered design work that solves real problems and addresses human needs.

The school is distinguished by a remarkably passionate teaching staff who instill that passion in their students. They also inspire an incredible level of user empathy; students here, more than almost any other school, are clearly not designing for themselves. 

The BYU work ethic is one of the strongest I've encountered, with students tenacious enough to make short work of obstacles that would completely frustrate the typical ID grad."

It was interesting to note that of the seven ID schools Backett mentioned, only two; BYU and the University of Cincinnati, were in the United States. High praise indeed.

This year (2014) year also marks the tenth anniversary of the XVW. In 2004, a team of BYU Industrial Design Students completed a fully functional sports car, built from the ground up, and unveiled it to representatives from General Motors and Ford.  Resembling a Corvette convertible and featuring a Volkswagen engine, the car was designed and constructed by three groups of Industrial Design Program seniors over a period of more than two years.

Advised by John Marshall, a team of 16 students built the one-of-a-kind automobile as part of a senior design class. The project exposed them to the varied phases of automobile development.  They learned how to design better vehicles because of the perspectives they gained, and fostered relationships between BYU and the auto industry.

2004’s group of industrial design students included Brian Sanderson, Jason Tippetts, Cameron Bigler, Trent Fulkerson, Ryan Dart, Matthew Pectol, David Haskell and Todd Taylor.

A former student said that John; "Always made me feel like I could design anything and....do a good job."

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Recently I've been working closely with a team of very bright and enthusiastic students who are trying to solve a wicked problem for a local business. Of course, I've been encouraging them to use Design Thinking methods to enhance their chances of success. This week they had their first opportunity to share their results with another student team who are working on another, much more highly defined, problem. The interaction was really interesting.

Since their problem was already fairly narrowly defined, the students with the "constrained" design challenge had jumped right into rapid prototyping and had already built several quick models.  The "wicked" team had interviewed over a dozen people involved in nearly every aspect of their design challenge and uncovered a whole suite of relevant issues.  Both teams had been productive and done some great initial work. Yet, when it came time to return and report concerning their efforts, there was a huge difference in the content of their presentations.

When the Q&A period began, the only two questions which the members of the "constrained" team had for the "wicked" team were; "What are you doing?" and "Do you have a schedule yet?" It was difficult not to value the "reality" of their physical prototypes more than the results of the empathy mapping.

This morning I received a message from a fellow Design Thinker which contained a story with a similar theme. He had used the terms Human Centered Design and Design Thinking with one of his more traditionally grounded clients and they had expressed some apprehension about it.

I've blogged before about the importance of taking on the mindset of the customer when talking about, or doing, Design Thinking. These two examples shed some light on the reason for my belief.

Since DT is a radically collaborative activity, it's very important that everyone have a flexible and expandable knowledge framework. Moreover, since DT operates at the intersection of Humanity, Technology and Business, it's at least triply important that there be a common framework for the conversation. That can be very difficult when even the definition of the process varies. With Design Thinking part of the challenge is that neither the elements nor the terminology are really new, yet it often presented as something new. In that regard, it's a bit like old wine in a new bottle.

Continuing with the wine analogy a bit further; Teaching or discussing Design Thinking suffers from the same old wine in a new bottle problem; If you simply changed the label, how does a neophyte recognize the vintage and vintner before removing the cork or taking a sip? How do they know if the contents are Domaine Romanée-Conti or Lucky Vin Rose?
Recently, I've begun to think of DT as not only a proven method of enhancing creativity, but an approach for identifying and learning what is and isn't relevant in solving complex, interrelated, multi-dimentional problems.

I'm not sure exactly how to get there just yet. I also don't know if its necessary to be an "artistic engineer with an MBA" to be able to effectively bridge the conceptual and conversational gaps between the camps. It may be that all we need is some sort of tri-lingual dictionary.

Is it time for Design Thinking for Dummies?