The Worst Possible Design

16 Aug 2019  John  5 mins read.

Dr. Vanessa Svihla has come up with an utterly horrible design for solving your problem, and she knows it.

As a faculty member and researcher at the University of New Mexico’s Organization, Information & Learning Sciences department, Dr. Svihla and her students have uncovered a counter-intuitive technique that helps designers come up with better designs.

Christened the Wrong Theory Protocol, their technique is pretty simple:

Start by intentionally designing the worst possible solution that you can imagine.

Don’t just create a design that doesn’t work, “improve” and “refine” your bad design until it intentionally harms and humiliates the intended user. Make sure that your design is worse than no design at all and that it violates the constraints and ignores the needs that prompted the design.

Creating the worst possible design…

I got to try out this approach at a recent meetup of the Design Thinking ABQ group, and it was great fun.

We were given the task of designing solutions for people who suffer from hyper-mobility in their joints.

These folks can have serious trouble performing simple tasks like opening doors because their joint mobility can actually harm them when attempting to twist and pull a knob simultaneously.

Folks with this condition tend to be sensitive about their differences, and we were told that very few will wear any sort of brace to protect themselves. They’d rather suffer than draw attention.

Despite myself, I immediately started thinking about mechanical aids… but Dr. Svihla refocused us on coming up with the worst possible idea and broke us into small groups.

Armed with the task to design the worst possible solution, my wife Teri and I huddled together and gleefully designed a monstrous solution (Truth be told, Teri was initially reluctant to even think about causing someone harm - It was me who was embarrassingly gleeful).

We settled on a design that incorporated implantable sensors and a “taser” that would shock and incapacitate the victim should they attempt to open a door by themselves. Once incapacitated, an “app” would then summon an “Uber for Door Opening” person to come and perform the task. To aid the “Door Opener” in locating their client, the implanted taser would then cause the victim to quiver as if they were having an epilectic fit.

Worst Design

The other groups came up with even more gruesome solutions (involving extracting blood in exchange for service). All of our designs succeeded in hurting and humiliating the user, and most designs directly violated the constraint that users would not wear braces (we missed that one).

It was all great fun, and then we regrouped to come up with good designs.

Our resultant good designs were significantly better in terms of empathy and effectiveness than our “worst” designs, and it felt like our “post bad designs” were significantly better than our original thoughts… I know mine was.

Originally I had ignored the “no brace” constraint, but after designing the worst possible design I opted for “Augmented Reality Glasses” that would project “safe opening instructions” on the door knob when the user approached. Perhaps not a practical design, but much more thoughtful and creative than my initial thoughts.

AR Goggles

Summing up…

Dr. Svihla closed the workshop by sharing with us a bit more about her research (which is funded by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EEC 1751369).

Dr. Svihla

She and her students have learned that the “worse possible design” approach doesn’t work in all situations. In cases where the status quo is already bad, thinking about how to make it worse doesn’t seem to help improve the designs to make things better.

They’re still trying to figure out why the approach works (or doesn’t work) in the hopes of determining when to use the protocol and when not to, and they’d love to hear feedback from anyone who tries the technique.

Can suggesting the worst possible option break decision deadlocks?

My own passion is to build tools that help groups reach consensus decisions, and I immediately sensed that the approach of “worst possible suggestion” could really help move a group closer to consensus.

How many times have deliberations bogged down because some participants were advocating solutions that were completely unacceptable to other participants?

Could this tendency to support an unacceptable option be reduced by asking each participant to first suggest “the worst possible choice”?

Would striving to come up with an option that nobody else could possibly support help them empathize with the views of the other participants? Would this empathy lead to consensus?

Next time you find yourself and your colleagues deadlocked in trying to figure out where to go to lunch, why not suggest that place that everyone hates? Better yet, suggest that place where everyone got sick and the health department shut them down…

Will making such an awful suggestion break the logjam and help the group pick a lunch spot?

I think it could, and I’ve brainstormed some ideas for how I might include these techniques in a future version of Trules.

Now all I have to do is come up with the worst possible design for doing it ;-)

Image Credits: Franck V. , Todd Quackenbush and Bram Van Oost

John Reynolds
John Reynolds

John is the creator of Trules.