This past Friday I attended Bolt | Peters' User Research Friday, and there were a couple of presentations I found interesting. For example, frogdesign's Associate Strategy Director Ben McAllister's talk based on his recent Atlantic Monthly article, "The 'Science' of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea." Evidently McAllister got some flak from folks who were saying he is anti-research or anti-science, when, in fact, he is a researcher but is anti-pseudo science - against designers or design researchers attempting to provide oomph to their argument by using scientific-sounding language about their research, as if Science is Certain. He refers to the mathematician William Byers' Science of Certainty, and the economist F. A. Hayek's term, Scientism - both dealing with the idea that science is not certain, it is an ever-evolving body of work moving toward certainty, with some ideas more certain than others, but nothing immutable.
The Dangerous Idea? That research can be used to provide easy answers. The talk covered a topic I often raise with my students - the idea of trying to persuade with scientific-sounding language rather than a courageous and well-argued rationale based on instinct that is well informed by solid research, iterative testing, and analysis.
McAllister starts with a cogent dissection of the word "strategy," which comes from the Greek "στρατός" (stratos), or army (that which is spread out) and "ἀγός" (agos), or leader. Strategy is, in other words, "leading that which is spread out." Leadership in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity.
Humans don't like uncertainty and ambiguity, so the impulse to find easy answers is a strong one. Without the uncertainty, however, there is no need for real leadership. What we're left with, McAllister says, is merely following directions. To provide true leadership, rather than easy answers, is to face the ambiguity. This is the act of courage required of the designer.
I made a LiveScribe "pencast" of the talk, which you can view here. Click on the handwritten notes to hear the presentation, and you can click anywhere (provided you can read my handwriting!) to skip to different parts of the talk: