Design in the digital age has come a long way since the early days of human-computer interaction. The modern designer is not only an executional craftsperson, but also has to strategically design empathetic online and off-line experiences for millions (or billions) of people at scale. Designers have to ensure we’re innovating at the right altitude. We have to adapt and learn how to automate lower-level design decisions so we can focus on strategic business needs.
One way designers and design leaders reframe problem statements and pick the right approach is the Cynefin framework. Doing so keeps us focused on novel solutions for unsolved problems, design as a competitive differentiator, and driving change with design thinking.
The Cynefin framework
Design thinking and the double diamond frameworks have saturated the design conversation, but one gap they share is that they don’t scale for the size of the problem. Running a weeklong Google Design Sprint to figure out how to best design a five-page marketing site is likely too much process for too little product. But The Cynefin (kun-ev-in) framework can help establish the ground you’re standing on, find a point of view, and move from tactics to strategy. This framework is a sense-making device for sizing your approach to a problem.
There are three critical roles that the Cynefin framework helps designers play: recognizing when to apply best practices, separating complex problems from complicated ones, and making sense of chaos.
Recognizing obvious problems
It’s difficult to define an obvious or solved problem in a young discipline like experience design. These are the types of problems where applying best practices makes the most sense. Let’s assume obvious problems have:
Clearly stated facts
Observable cause-and-effect relationships
A (small) known quantity of solutions
Treating an obvious problem (such as buying a product online) like it’s a novel design problem is not efficient. Identify where your product differs, or where there’s still room to differentiate. Run well-defined tests for quick feedback and move on. Instead, designers should focus on areas of low risk with a high certainty of success. You can identify risk by assessing:
The likelihood of a scenario occurring
The potential impact of failure
How established design patterns are
Take e-commerce checkout as an example. It will happen often, and if not designed right, it will have a high impact on business. But the design patterns are fairly well established. You know at some point, you’ll have to design the following:
Add an item to your cart
Give a shipping address
Add a payment method, including a billing address
Selecting a shipping method
Review your order
Create an account (optionally, in some cases)
Because these are obvious problems, time is better spent designing areas of higher complexity and risk unique to the product — for example, if it’s a pharmaceutical e-commerce site, validating the credentials of the prescriber. Because 1) it needs to happen frequently, 2) has serious consequences if done poorly, and 3) does not have well-established design patterns, more time should be spent on design.
If you’re a design leader, you already know obvious problems can be demotivating for your team to work on. Protect them from stakeholders forcing them to reinvent the wheel. Design systems are important for resolving obvious problems and letting teams focus on the interesting work.
Separating complex and complicated problems
When you’re faced with an overwhelming task, finding a starting point is tough. This is especially true when figuring out whether a problem is complex or complicated. Here are a few ways to help determine the difference:
Applying for a mortgage is a complicated problem. There’s a lot of steps, but it can be broken down into manageable chunks. Encouraging a newly diagnosed diabetic to adopt healthier habits is a complex problem. There is no easy answer, and even knowing the right questions to ask will take discovery work.
Design leaders guiding their teams through complex problems have a clear task: help shorten the feedback loop between researching, building, and learning. Remember, your role is to help reduce ambiguity over time and encourage frequent experimentation.
The need is different for complicated problems. Instead, leaders should help the team analyze the problem, identify commonalities, establish first principles, and build connective tissue into the experience while still breaking it down into manageable chunks.
Making sense of chaos
With chaotic problems, quick responses matter more than perfection. Early-career designers thrive in chaos as they churn out a flurry of exploratory designs, prioritizing finding a solution fast over minimizing effort or finding a “canonical” solution.
Doing this for a non-chaotic problem wastes effort. Design leaders need to identify and deflect chaos so teams can produce their best work. Push through the cone of uncertainty and pivot away from chaos. Use goals to align so you’re not mired in ambiguity.
Design is a spectrum
To be clear, solving problems with design is not a flowchart. High-performing designers take a mixed method approach depending on the need.
The fewer solutions for a problem, the more uncertainty about its nature, and the more removed it is from the core business competencies, the more design is needed. It takes deep insight into customers, knowledge of complex business domains, and exploration of the why (and not just the how) to craft truly innovative products, and design is the perfect strategy for delivering those products to market.
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