Convergence and divergence in the design process: diversity of ideas and opinions leads to great insights

This is a recent response for a course where I had to read chapters 5-8 of the very well-written book “Rapid Contextual Design” by Holtzblatt, Wendell, and Wood.


One detail I would like to focus on is the emphasis on diversity that is placed throughout the book, especially in chapters 5-8. I appreciate the author’s constant mention of this need. In my work in graduate school, I have found that the best work I have done has come from working with those from vastly different backgrounds since we not only have different skillsets but also different ways of approaching problems. I have had the pleasure of working with very talented programmers without design backgrounds, as well as very talented designers without programming experience. Being in the middle of those two in terms of skills, I also add a background in psychology and philosophy that I have found very complementary.

While I would consider all of my teammates in my projects in grad school thus far to be excellent, I have also found that I work best with one particular person in my program. Part of this has to do with being friends outside of the classroom, but a large reason for our successful collaboration is our predictably different way of considering design solutions that has become a running joke due to its reliability. Even when I try to do otherwise, my tendency is to use inductive reasoning to attempt to find general theories based on specific use cases. Based on these abstractions, I converge again to create my own use case. She on the other hand does the opposite and focuses on general principles and then uses deductive reasoning to create a detailed use case. While I would not call these strictly “top-down” versus “bottom-up” approaches, they are clearly quite different and have led to a variety of strong projects.

On a related note on diversity, as has been mentioned in class, many of these methods are borrowed from various disciplines. Perhaps most surprising (to me at least) is the amount of borrowing that has been done by business and management methods. Seeing how I have been trained and worked in academic environments (psychology research and now HCI), I have been raised in a learning environment where “living solely to make a profit” and “the corporate world” are usually seen as “corrupt”. Clearly, thinking of money is not a bad thing, but devoting a career to become a banker or other financial position can be interpreted as “selling out” (this has been said by every professor I’ve had the pleasure to work with). This perspective makes it all the more ironic when one considers that many essential “UX” and “HCI” methods such as affinity diagramming came from a group of Japanese researchers who wanted to create tools to assist in managing ideas [1].

Interestingly, different organizations use different names for these methods. One particular example that comes to mind is when I spoke with a Google recruiter recently. On my resumé, I listed several design skills (such as “affinity diagramming” and “stakeholder mapping”). The recruiter asked if I had done “tree analysis” for guiding usability tests. I admitted that I had not, in fact, heard of such a method and asked her to clarify. She then explained what amounted to a description of a “Tree diagram”, a method from the Japanese scientists [1], which I learned in grad school to be titled a “hierarchical task analysis”. Similarly, upon reviewing these seven planning tools, I realized that my stakeholder mapping experience could also be described as an “arrow diagram” or even a “consolidated sequence model” with all five work models (if one were to use Holtzblatt et al’s terminology).

To summarize, diversity and divergent thinking can lead to great insights and even more so when paired with effective convergent thinking. However, one must also ensure that terms and concepts are clearly outlined and defined in a manner similar to Holtzblatt et al in order to avoid confusion due to potential differences across disciplines