I’m Reuben Stanton. This is an intermittent blog of relatively random things: thoughts about technology, reflections on my life and work, and some historical stuff.

My ‘real’ website is here, and I tweet intermittently @absent

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Editing is harder than writing

Last week I had my first attempt at writing an ACM conference paper. It’s not really a full academic ‘paper’ — it’s for a doctoral consortium — but it was still an interesting experience: I am submitting my PhD research proposal, and in order to fit it in to their conference format (seen above), I had edit my 5000 word (plus references) proposal down to ~2500 words (including references). One thing about ACM papers is that they proscribe a structure that you must work to (including section headings). This messed with me quite a bit as my original proposal was written as a ‘slow build’ argument: my research questions and arguments were introduced slowly, arguments for research questions scattered through a literature review, or arguments for a research approach scattered through the explanation of a problem. I have a habit of using narrative and repetition as a rhetorical device: I’ll introduce a concept early on with a sentence, later  repeat that sentence with an expansion, later in the piece explain in more detail using the same words. This doesn’t work for this kind of paper. I had to restructure my argument to fit to introduction/context —> literature review —> gap/research question —> project methodology, and the low word count meant I couldn’t play around with repetition at all. The positive: I had to re-think my argument such that it is now a little clearer in my head. The negative: I think this structure is boring way to make an argument. No narrative, boring to read. What I’ve discovered (and I’m sure it’s not an original discovery): editing is harder than writing. I can bang out 500 to 1000 words per day with no problem. Editing those words to a concise structure, that’s a different story.

Pragmatist action

…it might be useful to think of pragmatist ideas of action and experience as like the prosaic activity of children playing. In play, children are not interested in achieving unequivocal ends and they overcome problems by imagining new ways of acting or by inventing new descriptions of the situation in which they find themselves. In the pragmatist model of action, the relationship between means and ends is radically reformulated such that action is both means and ends.

— McCarthy, John. 2004. Technology as Experience. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. So perhaps what I was doing in my previous post was advocating a pragmatist approach to design synthesis: the synthesis process as an experiential means and end.

Communicating design synthesis

When synthesising the reams of data that we collected on the user-experience redesign for Pool, we produced several formal design artefacts that we used in workshops to communicate our thoughts and findings to stakeholders within the ABC. This process—explicitly encouraged by Jeremy Yuille—appears to be a direct response to Jon Kolko 1 and his argument that the private nature of design synthesis is one cause of problems in design practice:

When synthesis is conducted as a private exercise, there is no visible connection between the input and the output; often, even the designers themselves are unable to articulate exactly why their design insights are valuable. 2

The artefacts that we produced were expressive objects 3, designed help us understand our process, but also designed to help include the client in abductive sensemaking. While these objects couldn’t capture the full gestalt of our insights, they allowed a level of understanding beyond the usual presentation and subsequent discussion of a traditional design outcome.

Kolko spends much of his paper defining an explicit sensemaking action framework, complete with some oddly specific instructions (my emphasis):

The designer will begin to identify insights in the data that has been gathered by combining an observation (I saw this) with knowledge (I know this). They can then write the insights on yellow note cards. 4

While the methods he describes (reframing, concept mapping, insight combination) are not new to contemporary interaction design, the formalisation of a pattern language for synthesis methods is welcome and well justified, if a little over-prescriptive.

Where my experience on Pool fits here is not in relation to this formalisation, although we did use variations of the methods discussed in Kolko’s paper. Instead, it is in response to Kolko’s implicit argument for more effective communication of the sensemaking process to stakeholders. Discussing the lack of formality in design synthesis, Kolko notes:

Clients don’t see the relationship between design research and design ideas, and therefore discount the value of design research and design synthesis entirely. 5

I can confirm this anecdotally from my own experience in various design and development roles in the industry. I imagine that most designers would have experienced this in some form during their careers. This not as an argument for formalisation so much as an argument for more effective communication of process. You might call it a ‘second-level externalisation’ of the existing ‘externalisation of knowledge’ performed by the designer during abductive sensemaking 6. It is an attempt to make the implicit explicit.

What might this process involve? In the case of Pool it involved producing artefacts during sensemaking that acted as formal representations of our process. These artefacts were then used as a tools to communicate the (usually implicit) sensemaking to those not privy to the (usually private) insights of the designer(s). As a response to Kolko, it seems so obvious when stated: “The client does not recognise the value of design research and design synthesis—we really should communicate what we are doing more effectively”.

Kolko’s response to the sensemaking problem is a valuable industry focussed one: to formalise the processes through an applied framework (one that help designers understand their own insights), and to suggest that design practitioners allocate time to this formal process. I suggest an addition: produce formal artefacts during and after synthesis that can be used to communicate your process to stakeholders.

While synthesis is still primarily performed as a reflective and private exercise, production of formal records and artefacts could help a designer consider how and why they’ve reached certain design insights, improving the chances of effective articulation of concepts. These artefacts, when used as part of a client engagement activity, could help stakeholders to participate in—and better understand the value of—the research and sensemaking process.


  1. Kolko, J. (2010). Abductive thinking and sensemaking: The drivers of design synthesis. Design Issues, 26(1), 15-27. 
  2. Ibid. p. 25 
  3. Dewey, John. 2005. Art as Experience. Trade pbk. ed. New York: Perigee Books. 
  4. Kolko, J. (2010), p. 26 
  5. Ibid., p. 16 
  6. Ibid., p. 18