What is Temporal Design Thinking?

NOTE: I use the term “actor” in this article in place of the more common terms “user”, “audience”, and “customer”.

To paraphrase the bard: “All the world’s a screen, and all the men and women merely Player One.” We have an innate need to be the heroes of our own stories — the prime mover of our destiny — and that is magnified when digital devices are used to create our narratives. If designed correctly, we feel more in control in virtual space/times than we ever could in real space/time.

Design thinking has been with us for at least 30 years — arguably longer — but it has taken on new life with computer-human interaction in the last decade to embrace truly human centered design. Many groups teach design thinking methodologies and process to eager companies—looking to find the advantages they’ve seen in companies like Apple.

However, traditional design thinking still looks at the instance of interaction — at the goal of the moment — not at the larger goals of the actor. An actor’s experience goes far beyond a single point of interaction with the product in a single moment. Design needs to do more than simply focus on visual and interactive, but also on the temporal:  how the desired outcome fits and works together with the actor’s goals over time.

This is what I call temporal design thinking.

Thinking like a designer

Design thinking, to be reductively simple, means “thinking like a designer” in order to develop solutions. According to Thomas Lockwood in his introduction to the book of essays he edited called Design Thinking : Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value, the value in design thinking is that:

“By thinking like designers—being able to see the details as well as zoom out to the big picture—we can really add value by challenging the status quo.”

— Thomas Lockwood, Design Thinking

Design thinking is about reversing the way many people approach solving problems so that we can find innovative solutions. Rather than starting with the issues and finding a solution, we start with the desired outcome (the big picture) and work to figure the best way(s) to make that happen.

For example, rather than trying to figure out how to build a bridge across the river, with design thinking we start with the desired outcome: being to the other side of the river. A bridge might be one possible solution, but a tunnel, a jet pack, or even teleportation might all be looked at to achieve the actual goal for the desired outcome. The point is not to allow a preconceived “answer” to prevent you from innovating new and possibly better solutions.

Lockwood lists three primary tenets for design thinking in his introduction:

  1. Develop a deep understanding of the actor based on fieldwork research.

  2. Collaborate with the actors through the formation of multidisciplinary teams.

  3. Accelerate learning through visualization, hands-on experimentalism, and creating quick prototypes, which are made as simple as possible in order to get usable feedback.

However, in my own experience designing digital products, I have found that — while excellent for thinking about visual and some interactive issues — current design thinking methodologies leave out how that design fits into the longer term narrative for the actor.

Putting the “temporal” in “design thinking”

Temporal design thinking broadens the scope beyond interaction points and linear journeys into a wider world of how the goal for the product might fit into the actors wider goals and needs over time. In her seminal book Computers as Theatre — first published at the dawn of the Web in 1990 — Brenda Laurel touches on the need for a more temporal approach to computer-human interaction:

Thinking about interfaces is thinking too small. Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desktop. It’s about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality: worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act.

Simply thinking about the single interface or interaction point with a product is not enough. Instead, design thinking needs to consider the actor’s experience with the medium in time as well as space. Temporal design, then, means thinking of the visual (static) and interactive (dynamic) needs in specific context as well how they will change for the actor over time.

What is lacking in most ‘interactive’ designs today is consideration that the interface will change depending on the actor’s shifting context, developing needs, and changing goals.

All designers are familiar with visual design and many can create interactive designs. But the larger context of thinking about designing experiences that evolve and unfold over time can be elusive. It requires creating designs that are not fixed, but based on potential growth as needs and conditions change.

Levels of Experience Design
Levels of Experience Design

Returning to the bridge example, when we come up with our solution using design thinking, we probably made several assumptions without even thinking:

  1. The width of the river will not change.
  2. The course of the river will not change.
  3. The place where people need to cross the river will not change.
  4. Better methods and materials will not come along in the future.

If not taken into account, design decisions made without this temporal factor will limit future decisions, sometime to great detriment. We become committed to the design decisions we make, often cutting out better, more human centered, alternatives that may present themselves later.

In his book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier refers to this phenomena of limiting design decisions as “lock-in”:

The process of lock-in is like a wave gradually washing over the rulebook of life, culling the ambiguities of flexible thoughts as more and more thought structures are solidified into effectively permanent reality.

The effect is to quell innovation, since to change the “permanent reality” is too difficult. To overcome lock-in, we often refer to “future proofing” our designs, but what exactly does that mean?

It simply means looking beyond the moment. So, to Lockwood’s three tenets, I will add a fourth:

4. Follow the rhythm of the actor and how their needs and goals change both in context and over time.

In future essays, I’ll explain how to think about time in design and ways to add a consideration of time while designing user experiences.

NEXT: Visualizing Design In Time

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