Design Philosophy: Conceptual Integrity and Empathic Anticipation

July 7, 2020

In the late 90s and early 2000s, designers used to repeat the mantra “learn once, use everywhere.”

It appears to me that this ideal has been waning for the last ten years or so, in favor of a different ideal, which involves understanding what people will be thinking, feeling and trying to do at each moment of an experience, in order to anticipate their needs and likely responses.

The first ideal emphasizes working systematically to develop and maintain conceptual clarity, consistency, and coherence. The goal is to help people understand how the system works so they can learn it and control it easily. Let’s call this ideal Conceptual Integrity.

The newer ideal emphasizes empathizing with people and understanding their experience so that learning or understanding the system is unnecessary. The system shapes itself around their needs, their wants and their desired actions. Let’s call this newer ideal Empathic Anticipation.

It is clear that the two ideals conflict to some degree, which means tradeoffs must be made. Perfect Empathic Anticipation requires flexibility from systems to conform to the momentary needs of a moment. Conversely, perfect Conceptual Integrity would limit the repertoire of interactions to a small and learnable set, and would not support arbitrary deviations to address needs a person might have in only one moment of an experience.

Of course, no design is fully one or the other. Most designers try to strike a balance between the two ideals. The best solutions manage to minimize tradeoffs and cleverly conceal the tradeoffs that are made so people don’t even notice them.

But to make these kinds of tradeoffs designers need at least three skills and toolsets to support those skills.

First, to design with conceptual integrity, designers need to know how to think and work systematically, both conceptually and concretely, so that the relationships between the whole and its parts are perfectly clear and logical.

Second, to design with empathic anticipation, designers need to know how to develop deep insights into the people they are designing for, what they are trying to accomplish and how this need fits into their lives as a whole, so that each moment of the experience accurately anticipates and effectively responds to their needs, both functionally and emotionally.

Finally, to pull together the right experience for this particular person in this particular situation, we need to know how to think about design problems and make the best tradeoffs. We must never automatically apply our own favored skills and best-mastered tools, but rather select our methods intelligently in response to our understanding of the problem. To do this, we need to draw on both ideals and bring them to bear on design approaches themselves.

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