“What I've always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I've decided that I can't accept your offer.”
Richard Feynman

Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

Designing an Engine


This post is also dedicated to Mark and the guys at Diaspora

When I was working as a software designer – we would sometimes run into clients that would ask for a “per-screen” quote. My partner would then answer that we aren’t Samsung – we don’t manufacture screens. Usually when people, especially developers, hear “design” they think about screens, graphics, usability, user experience. While all these are a part of design they don’t touch on the most important part of design (which also happens to be the part I do best and love doing). This post may hopefully shine some light on what that is.

If you’re a developer (especially an open-source developer), you’re reading this and you haven’t yet read “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” then get the book now. It’s easy & fun to read, and may open up new avenues of thought for you. If you were to read only one book on software design – this should be the book!

Update: I came across a comprehensive preview of the book.

Here’s a quote of one relevant paragraph:

“It might be counter-intuitive in our feature-conscious world, but you simply cannot achieve your goals by using features lists as a problem solving tool. It’s quite possible to satisfy every feature on the list and still hatch a catastrophe. Interaction designer Scott McGregor uses a delightful test in his classes to prove this point. He describes a product with a list of features, asking his class to write down what the product is as soon as they can guess. He begins with 1) internal combustion engine; 2) four wheels with rubber tires; 3) a transmission connecting the engine to the drive wheels; 4) engine and transmission mounted on a metal chassis; 5) a steering wheel. By this time every student will have written down his or her positive identification of the product as an automobile, whereupon Scott ceases using features to descibe the product and instead mentions a couple of user goals: 6) cuts grass quickly and easily; 7) comfortable to sit on. From the five feature clues not one student will have written down ‘riding lawnmower’. You can see how much more descriptive goals are then features”

I am guessing the guys at Diaspora are going to start by building an engine. The question is do they know what kind? For a private car? jet airplane? semi-truck? tractor? generator? Or something else altogether? They’re all “engines” – but they have different purposes and different qualities designed to fulfill their purposes.

How can you know you are heading in the direction you want to go? What do you do to stay on course when you reach an obstacle that forces you to take a detour? You need a lighthouse or a north star – something that calls to you, something that shimmers for you in the dark, something you can look to, something you can aspire to.

You may get there and rejoice. You may get there and realize you really wanted to go somewhere else. You may only get close and realize that is enough for you. You may have to move away from it in order to get closer to it. You may find new places on the way. You may lose interest and decide to go somewhere else. All these movements gain a coherent and supportive context when you have an anchor, something steady to which you can relate, something that can be perceived as getting further or nearer.

You may also want to read: [Design]ating Purpose

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2 Trackbacks

  • […] any prior contact with. Writing from his home in Israel, author IAMRONEN posted his May 14, 2010 blog entry, referred to a design exercise I invented while developed my Disruptive Innovation New Product […]

  • By Diaspora and Breathing - iamronen on September 20, 2012 at 8:32 am

    […] wrote and dedicated a post to them in an attempt to outline a design problem they, as engineers, were bound (and did) crash […]

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