Presented at UX Australia 2012, in the "10-Minute Talks". Below are my presenter notes, as well as most of the slides used. You can hear the audio of my delivery here.

Current UX approaches are based on problem finding and solving. The focus on dysfunction contributes to sapped morale, political games and decision paralysis in multidisciplinary teams. Positive Design is an alternative, strength-based method that promotes positive change and innovation through human-centric cooperation and collaboration across organisational boundaries.

Positive design

Problem finding and solving

The traditional approach to consulting is quite simple: Go out looking for problems and formulate ways to solve them. Design is a type of consulting – regardless of whether you work internally or externally to an organisation – and designers pride themselves on their ability to find and solve problems.

Discourse and action

Discourse and action often go hand-in-hand, and language shapes the nature of interpersonal relationships. It is particularly interesting to look at the language employed by some of the UX industryʼs most prominent commentators in their articles and books:

A friend of mine calls them the “UX Grouches”. And they seem to have a large following in the industry. Looking at my Twitter timeline, this is what I often hear my UX colleagues say:

The focus on problems is arguably an artefact from the industrial era, serving the logic of ever-improving productivity and efficiency. Strong rhetoric – basically telling people that their baby is ugly – is used to get a message across and serves the logic of obtaining control (or power struggle).

It’s often forgotten that behind issues, problems and dysfunctions, there are smart, hard-working and well-intentioned PEOPLE. No matter how detachedly the data are looked at, or how politely pitfalls are explained, people’s emotions are still going to come into play. Studies suggest that the constant focus on dysfunction results in sapped morale, disengagement and defensive collaboration, ultimately detracting from the original goal of improving things.

In other words, while detecting deficiencies might help improve the “what is”, it hardly helps to create the emotionally safe environment conducive to the unbridled generative thinking necessary to fully elaborate the “what could be” – especially when combined with negative language.

Skills, time, resources, processes, culture

In effect, if you scratch the surface, all UX problems are one or any combination of these aspects: skills, time, resources, processes, and organisational culture. In order to achieve meaningful, durable and sustainable user experience practices, designers need to engage in promoting positive organisational change along these axes.

But what do our discourse and actions say about our own culture as designers?

Which brings up the next point: Frames of Reference.

Problem set, Analysis, Alternatives

Successful UX design can only happen through cross-boundary, multidisciplinary collaboration.

Many professionals – and managers – are trained to think analytically. Put simply (and probably simplistically, my apologies), analytical thinking involves looking at a given problem set through a number of lenses to figure out a number of predetermined alternatives. This is good in certain circumstances because it allows for quick decision-making based on a repeatable, predictable and reliable process. Thus, a manager’s set of lenses might include tools like economic analysis, risk assessment, time value of money etc. Even Western doctors are trained to think this way. Psychiatrists, for instance, refer to a manual of mental disorders – DSM IV – to infer, from a given diagnostic, the appropriate treatments and drugs.

When analytical thinking is applied to design, the designer’s lenses might include stuff like design principles, heuristics, guidelines, standards etc; and the alternatives might resolve to things like design patterns. While this may make managers and other team members happy by minimising the uncertainties of the often chaotic design process, and providing consistent, repeatable and predictable outcomes, the downside is that it also invariably results in formulaic and mediocre designs.

Designers, in fact, are trained to think synthetically (as opposed to analytically) to generate NEW alternatives (as opposed to pre-cooked ones), which is the whole point behind Design Thinking.

In the context of multidisciplinary team work, we have therefore people with different frames of reference formulating varied – and sometimes conflicting – alternatives from the same problem set.

In politically charged organisations, this typically leads to decision paralysis. In the context of a power struggle, the top dog wins. And this is ultimately the reason insightful recommendations and thoughtful designs are not implemented.

Positive design offers a dialectic alternative to the traditional approach to design as it is “less focused on the detection of errors associated with gaining control and more concerned with human-centred design associated with the shaping of thriving organisations and a hopeful future”. (1)

Positive Design

Positive Design builds on the work by Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who, in the 1980s and 90s devised a new branch in psychology called Positive Psychology. They started by observing that all the psychology research at that time was centred on mental disorders, and asked the question: What are the mental, physical and spiritual processes that make people happy? Positive psychologists are therefore concerned with four points: positive experiences, enduring psychological traits, positive relationships, and positive institutions.

From Positive Psychology, a number of strength-based approaches were devised, such as strength-based parenting, strength-based leadership, strength-based management, and even Positive Economics!

More recently, a strength-based approach to Change Management was developed, called Affirmative Inquiry. I invite all designers endeavouring to promote positive change to look at the above topics.

Iʼd like to stress two key characteristics of Positive Design:

First, is that it is, well, positive. :-)

Imagine that, in the context of a user-centred design process, research was conducted and a number of issues were revealed. The exact nature of the issues is not important for the purposes of this explanation. It could be something like – to use current UX language – “70% of website content is CRAP”, or “70% of the users dropped out of the STUPID checkout process”.

Though success and failure are sometimes related, looking at one doesn’t tell us much about the other. So, what made the other 30% of the content good, or 30% of the users succeed?

The truth is that in every organisation – large or small – there’s always a small group of people, or a full product team, or even an entire division doing things right. From the user’s perspective, what is it about them that could help others succeed?

Positive Design will still make good use of insights stemming from problem finding but will focus on spreading success stories across the board.

Us vs them

The second key characteristic of Positive Design is that it is participatory.

The participatory approach in Positive Design extends the scope of participation beyond users (typically the case in participatory design and co-design approaches) to embrace the entire stakeholder community (team members, managers, directors, partners, providers etc.) in the process.

Positive Design creates a safe space and environment where people can come together, have dialogues, and engage in storytelling so they can make sense of the world, resolve conflicts, and form agreements.

So, to sum up, remember the diagram representing the disconnect between people from different frames of reference and endeavours?

Positive Design turns the thing on its head: the problems are no longer at the centre of the stage.

Positive Design focuses on bringing the stakeholders together to jointly engage in idea sharing, identification of a common ground, and reaching consensus. Its participatory nature enables people to identify with the common purpose and engage in joint identity building. A generative design process is made possible through a common frame of reference and a shared vocabulary.

And to wrap up, here’s a short comparison table between the traditional approach and Positive Design.

Positive Design is not the panacea, and it’s probably unsuited for some settings (command-and-control types of organisations come to mind) – but looking at things through a positive lens whenever possible will undoubtedly promote more meaningful, fulfilling, empowering and humane work experiences for everyone involved, and arguably better designs, if you accept the notion that design is not finite but rather an open-ended, ongoing process.

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The End

(1) Design with a Positive Lens: An A rmative Approach to Designing Information and Organizations by: M. Avital, K. Lyytinen, R. J. Boland, B. Butler, D. Dougherty, M. Fineout, W. Jansen, N. Levina, W. Rifkin and J. Venable

“Let us be the change we seek.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

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