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April 27, 2006

A Note on "Discipline Lock" and Why You Need to Listen Generously to Others on Your Team

This text was originally written as a response to a series of posts on the Anthrodesign list-serve which serves as a shared space for discussion between anthropologists and designers who use social sciences to drive design solutions...

This thread has, in my opinion, just touched on the most important topic facing any specialized worker in the world today. As societies, communities, technologies and the systems we've built have become more complex, there is an increasingly desperate need for cross-disciplinary input on the solutions we build for consumers, in companies, for organizations and government. Unless you're a designer who works on nothing but simple objects or an anthropologist locked in ivory towers, you'll pretty much be forced to reckon with the differing world views, values, and lexicon found in the social sciences, design, business, engineering, among other fields.

At the same time the complexity in our society requires ever more sophisticated interdisciplinary solutions to be relevant, disciplines themselves have grown ever deeper and more complex. This presents an interesting dilemma for all of us: we need to be more specialized to bring the best and latest knowledge to bear against complex problems but we have to be broad enough to communicate valuably with other members of our "team", whatever that may be. This is, bar none, the biggest barrier to creating innovation today and is what completely differentiates companies who succeed and fail. One dimensional thinking just simply will not cut it in the current context.

Thinking of work I've done in the past for a major internet portal, I can not begin to express the frustration I would have with designers that would couch presentations of their work with the disclaimer that, "The design of the page could be so much better without these ads on it." This portal, and consequently the designer's salary was funded almost exclusively by advertising. His values were so exclusively locked into his own discipline that he couldn't easily reframe the problem for what it was: to create the best experience of users of this particular page while supporting business goals. If he had, he may have considered new ways to reach the consumers he served but instead designed the page with the ads treated as an affront. The truth is that we all benefit from learning about offerings we want to buy and when presented well we will happily respond advertising.

That said, not everyone has the time or interest to be trained in all of the various disciplines one could bring to bear to some problem or opportunity. I am a bit of a unique (nut) case as I was trained in Anthropology and Psychology at the University of Chicago as an undergrad, worked as a designer but then more of a business lead for 9 years, and am now attending the Institute of Design's Masters program. I've had academic training or professional experience in social sciences, business and design so I have a particularly broad point of view. I don't necessarily advocate individuals spreading themselves this thin as I have, at various points, felt like I have lacked the deep part of the T of so-called "T-shaped" people. I see myself as a shorter but maybe a bit wider version of the T and believe that this allows me to really bridge real and perceived gaps on project and strategy teams with which I work.

I write all this to point out what I feel are the really best and worst parts of the anthrodesign list. At its best, anthrodesign is a place for BOTH anthropologists and designers to generously share information about how one can study people, learn insights from this study, and use these insights to drive really relevant and compelling design solutions. The "generous" part of this is really important because it forces you to both give of yourself and accept others values. We all need to bring value to the table while paying special attention to the value others bring. I like to think that most people generally wish to contribute so we all need to try to listen. This generous give and take is the best part of this list. At its worst, it's a place where an excess of discipline specific terminology without explanation or reference can build barriers between people who really need to work together.

I happen to be doing research in this very area and have hope that we could develop a common shared practice and lexicon taught across disciplines which could assist development teams in bringing the collective wisdom of the group to bear to create the most relevant, most compelling, most sustainable offerings. It really doesn't matter how important our observations, insights, designs, interactions, patterns, architectures, engineering solutions or business models are if we can't adequately communicate their value to each other.

The fact that this list even exists is a great start! Share and share alike. Maybe we should start a anthroengineeringbusinessdesign list and get everyone involved. :P

Posted by zacharyparadis at 04:59 PM | TrackBack