The magic question

A number of years ago, I wrote a paper about design, some of the barriers our cognitive architecture provides, and some heuristics I used to get around them.  I wrote a summary of the paper as four posts, starting here.  I was reminded of one of the heuristics in a conversation, and had a slightly deeper realization that of course I wanted to share.

The approach, which I then called ‘no-limits’ design, has to do with looking at what solution you’d develop if you had no limits. I now think of it as the ‘magic’ approach.  As I mentioned in the post series, this approach asks what you’d design if you had magic (and referred to the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote). And while I indicated one in the past, I think there are two benefits to this approach.

First, if you consider what you’d do if you have magic, you can help prevent a common problem, premature convergence. Our cognitive architecture has weaknesses, and a couple of them revolve around solving problems in known ways and using tools in familiar ways.  It’s too easy to subconsciously rule out new options.  By asking the ‘magic’ question, we ask ourselves to step outside what we’ve known and believe is possible, and consider the options we’d have if we didn’t have the technological limitations.

Similarly, using the notion of ‘magic’ can help us explore other models for accomplishing the goal. If design is not just evolutionary, but you also want to explore the opportunities to revolutionize, you need some way to spark new thinking.  The ability to remove the limitations and explore the core goals facilitates that.

Using this at the wrong time, however, could be problematic. You may have already constrained your thinking too far.  If you consider the design process to be a clear identification of the problem (including the type of design thinking analysis that includes ethnographic approaches) before looking for solutions, and then considering a wide variety of input data about solutions including other approaches already tried, you’d want this to come after the problem identification but before any other solutions to explore.

Pragmatically, per my previous post, you want to think about your design processes from a point of view of leverage. Having worked through several efforts to improve design with partners and clients, there are clear leverage points that give you the maximum impact on the quality of the learning outcome (e.g. how ‘serious‘ your solution is) for the minimal impact. There are many more small steps that can be integrated that will improve your outcomes, so it helps to look at the process and consider improvement opportunities.  So, are you ready to ask the ‘magic’ question?

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