What is a design hypothesis and when is it required?

Observe-Interpret-Design-ExperimentThe concept of a design hypothesis is central to Adaptive Iteration.  But what is it and when is one required?

All designs have some degree of freedom and therefore involve choice by the designer.  How does the designer make that choice?  It depends on the stability and predictability of the context in which the design is to be used and on the extent to which past practice has evolved optimal designs or design variants for similar situations.

If there is substantial precedence, it is likely that design choices will be determined by past best practice.  Past best practice may exist in a number of forms, including:  formal design rules, modular components or established design heuristics.

In the organizational context, best practice is often promulgated by consultants and the management literature.  However, quite often not enough attention is given to describing the context for the supposed best practice or to assessing the contextual factors critical to the success of the ‘best practice’.  As a result, many ‘best practice’ organizational improvement initiatives fail to achieve expectations because of significant contextual differences between the best practice context and that of the implementing organization.  As I will discuss in a future blog post, adaptive iteration should be used to tailor and refine the design and implementation of many such initiatives.

If there is limited relevant precedence and the context is stable and predictable, it is likely that the design choices will be made by experts through a combination of their experience and analysis based on existing information and codified knowledge.  If the context is complex and unpredictable, experience and past practice are significantly less valuable in determining optimal design choices.  In such cases, the designer should consider an iterative hypothesis based approach.  The initial design choices are recognised as informed predictions, usually involving input from experts, that need to be evaluated and refined through repeated research and testing (experiments).  In a sense, the designers have a dialogue with the context.

In comparison with expert driven design, hypothesis driven design involves greater use of multi-disciplinary and multi-perspective teams.  It favours early action (prototypes, concept outlines, story boards, ‘sighter’ trials, etc) to generate feedback and learning.

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