I Don't Care about Your New Framework

At every design conference someone “invents” a new framework for looking at users. In more understandable terms, people continue to make up ways to divide someone’s life into little pieces. For some reason, they think their scissor cuts of work and play, digital and physical, or love and hate are better than others… I have no idea why.

###Let’s Take a Look at a Few So you know what I’m talking about, here are some “ethnographic observation frameworks” I’ve collected over the years. If you’re the dutiful user-centered designer, you’ve probably seen many of these before, and probably right now are building a mental matrix relating them to each other even before finishing this sentence.

Dramatism by Aristotle

  • Act
  • Agent
  • Agency
  • Scene
  • Purpose

Shelley Evenson’s Five Ps

  • Process
  • People
  • Products
  • Place
  • Performance


  • Processes
  • Roles
  • Tools
  • Space
  • Technology


  • Journeys
  • People
  • Propositions
  • Systems
  • Value

Spradley’s Dimensions

  • Space
  • Actors
  • Activities
  • Objects
  • Acts
  • Events
  • Time
  • Goals
  • Feelings

Doblin Group AEIOU

  • Environments
  • Users
  • Activities
  • Objects
  • Interactions


  • Atmospheres
  • Actors
  • Activities
  • Artifacts


  • Territory
  • People
  • Stuff
  • Talk


  • Situation
  • Person
  • Activity
  • Objects
  • Time

###So What? So now that you’ve scrolled through, saw similarities and differences, picked favorites, why am I showing all of these? Well there are two points I want to make.

####Arts versus Techniques

There is a difference between an art, skill, method, and technique. I could be wrong in the nomenclature or specific hierarchy, but that’s not the point, anyway it goes something like this: empathy is an art, asking thought provoking penetrating questions is a skill, asking questions based on a canned framework is a method, and including long pauses, nodding, and smiling are techniques. Most design blogs, design conferences and design-ers, just like other knowledge workers, are stuck in the zone between methods and techniques. We already have many methods for observing, but we are losing focus on what we are actually trying to do and what we actually care about. We are losing sight of the why. I don’t want to get better at nodding, well I do, but really I want to get better at being empathetic. I want to get better at understanding someone else’s world, their values, their beliefs, their loves and hates. I want to love what they love and hate what they hate so that when I make something for them, I can conjure up that entire world of existence and use that as inspiration. Where are the conversations about the arts of design? Where are conversation about truly connecting with other human beings? With the thoughtfulness in making a thing that’s going to exist in the world?

My only theory is that those conversations are hard. They don’t have hard edges, they don’t fit into nice lists, pretty pictures, or are easily transferable. Because of a few cognitive biases, we gravitate to lists, dualism, metaphors, and other mental techniques of simplification and tidying up.

####I’m not You

The second point is that I can cultivate a great framework for understanding twenty-somethings’ understanding of home ownership. I can work it every day for 3 months, revise it, create a tidy little shortcut made of only a few words. Maybe those few words even spell something cute like E.N.G.A.G.E., so that I can remember each part of my framework. That’s great, the problem is that you are not me. You did not spend those three months adding meat to each one of those letters, you don’t understand how I got there, what the boundaries of each framing is, or how some parts of the framework are actually relic code carried over from another framework. You didn’t read that entire 12 page spread in Design Issues on what it means to facilitate, and you didn’t read Richard Mckeon’s definition of the term “commonplace.” Yeah sure, take my framework, use it, think itâ™s great, just don’t think that I am adding anything meaningful to the conversation other than another starting place. Don’t think you will know the depth of each term, of each process, or the sweat that went into it. Don’t think it matters. So I apologize if I don’t care about your new framework for distinguishing the differences between UI designers, interactive designers, and interaction designers, or your new definition for Service Design, or your new framework for understanding family dynamics. There are people far smarter than us, who have worked harder than us, at developing frameworks for every damn thing, and honestly, I don’t think we need anymore.

February 09, 2011 |