Adversarial Design, Part 1: Collaboration Through Disagreement


Disagreeing with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, as I did two weeks ago, is like walking into a minefield. Although Gruber has a cutting wit, he is thoughtful and respectful when it comes to discussions of technology and design. But when you spar with Gruber, you also step into the ring with his readership, tens of thousands of people who have strong and spirited opinions about design. People not afraid to say what’s on their mind.

It’s eye-opening, to say the least. And not just Daring Fireball’s readers. Any large group of opinions is going to produce surprises. As seen in last week’s post on Lizard People, when you look at the reactions of large groups of people you get a fair share of what Malcolm Gladwell has called “outliers“, folks whose ideas and opinions don’t quite fit in nicely on the map.

Going out on a limb and taking a position on an issue — even if you’re not sure you’re right about it — will always inspire debate. And from the churn of debate, good ideas can emerge. The more churn, the more likely a surprising outlier will emerge.

This is the essence of collaboration.

The only thing that will put a damper on this healthy churn is disrespect. Respect is absolutely essential to fruitful collaboration, especially if you want to glean powerful insights from a lively debate. And respect is multidirectional — in any group there are going to be power dynamics. For example on a blog the blog’s owner has the power of the soapbox (and the moderation toolkit) to suppress or censor debate. And some commenters exploit the power of anonymity, tossing firebombs with no regard for any common objective.

It is the responsibility of all who want to benefit from discussion to do what they can to flatten these power relationships by bending over backwards to respect their collaborators. Those with more power must frequently cede it. Those with less power must not resort to rhetorical violence to assert it.

This also applies in organizations — managers, bosses, and clients often have to relinquish the leverage they posess (the ability to rule by fiat, or to veto at will) if they want their teams to really open up.

Khoi Vinh recently wrote about a project his team at the New York Times has been developing and has just released, called Times Extra. It’s an optional user feature that introduces links to related content on other web sites. It’s a pretty radical idea, guaranteed to ruffle many feathers. Khoi and his team really went out on a limb with this, and they knew it. Khoi described the trepidation they felt (and managed to get over, thankfully) as a kind of “Fear of Design“.

Times Extra is an experiment in modestly redesigning the user experience; whether it’s a success or not is up to you and all of our users. Hopefully enough people will find it useful for us to evolve it further; I don’t think any of us suppose that this is really the last word in how third-party links can be expressed on the site. My point is that, as designers, an aversion to flouting the rules of visual decorum often doesn’t serve us well. Nor for that matter does a fear of failure.

The opposite of fear, of course, is courage. It takes courage to present your design ideas when you are sure you will face criticism. When even you yourself are unsure of the correctness of your idea. Simply put, you will never be a good designer without taking risks.

Team of Rivals

I am extremely pleased with President-Elect Obama’s Lincoln-like “Team of Rivals” approach to building his cabinet. Great ideas simply can not emerge from single-minded groupthink.  Greg Storey sees this as extremely relevant to design collaboration:

The more you live and work around people who rarely present a different viewpoint, the softer your brain gets, the more complacent you become…

I am a big fan not just of permitting multiple perspectives, but mandating it. Forcing yourself to come up with more than one idea. Requiring a team of designers to all contribute multiple low-fidelity solutions before focusing on only one. This is why I love sketching as a formal practice — it permits the creator of an idea to put any single idea aside and work on another one without too much investment (of time or emotional energy).

  • Jerome Ryckborst has a great slideshow describing his company’s “Five Sketches or Else” approach to ideation.
  • Victor Lombardi encourages a breadth-before-depth approach to early-stage concept development.
  • Of course, Apple works this way, too.

Okay, so we’ve got multiple voices and ideas out in the open. How shall we decide which to believe? Next post…


3 responses to “Adversarial Design, Part 1: Collaboration Through Disagreement”

  1. Having only recently begun to study interaction design and usability myself, I relish disagreements/collaborations such as Fahey v. Gruber. Posts that react to other material with articulate arguments, along with their ensuing comments, are infinitely more informative than quiet, isolated observations.

  2. As seen in last week’s post on Lizard People, when you look at the reactions of large groups of people you get a fair share of what Malcolm Gladwell has called “outliers“, folks whose ideas and opinions don’t quite fit in nicely on the map.

    But it’s Hans Rosling that has shown that if you look at data from a different perspective, the concept of “outlier” becomes moot. Everyone/No one is an outlier. Outliers only exist when you create generalisations (Then you can choose what criteria doesn’t fit arbitrarily). Example: Take the top 10 billionaires in the world. Bill Gates isn’t an outlier, as he’s male. Suddenly, he becomes one if you decide the criteria are “caucasian, dropped out from an ivy league university, and was arrested before age 25”. Everyone is a unique snowflake, even if you shouldn’t treat them as special.

    But back to the real point of the post, which is about collaboration via differing viewpoints. Orange fashion designer Michael Kors once stated [to the effect] that you *must* have conflict in order to produce a successful product. If there is no criticism of your work from your collaborators, you only succeed in making yourselves happy, and not your customers. In the end, our business, like the fashion business, is not about us, but the consumer. There is a *huge* amount of wank in our industry, and I think we often forget that it’s not all about us.