in Teaching, Tools

Are We Arguing When We Should be Designing?

shirt slogan: I'm not going to waste my time debating with you. Does this look like the Internet?

Scanning the Internet-centered design mailing lists these days, I have to wonder if the inward-looking conversations aren’t doing more harm than good.

Earlier in my career, mailing lists and blogs were incredibly useful tools for learning my craft. The mass media hasn’t really covered the story of blogs as more than journals and citizen journalism. For those of us designing complex Internet systems there were (and are) tons of interesting problems to solve, and we wrote about them and shared invaluable information with each other, desperately trying to push the discipline fast enough to turn new ideas into functioning reality. It wasn’t just writing and reading, it was joint, remote problem solving among an entire community.

As I became more accomplished, I didn’t need quite as much of that communication to practice my discipline, the work become more about how to manage teams and help them ascend the learning curve. So these days I blog less frequently and mostly scan the mailing lists. And what I see concerns me. Some of our brightest minds are still having the defining the damn thing discussion, which we realized years ago was proving fruitless.

Perhaps just saying no to something seemingly pleasurable isn’t enough; we need compelling alternatives. So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about tools we use to do our work and tools we make to empower others. The difficulty of programming is a threshold that reduces designers to asking others for help, but we need to funnel our energy into creating tools to solve our problems and then move on to more interesting problems.

More on this in the coming months…

  1. Your “defining the damn thing” link appears to be broken.

    Regarding your overall point, I think it’s easy to forget what it feels like to be a beginner in the field, and that some things are hard to learn without experiencing it ourselves. Is the definition thing fruitless? I mostly think so. Can you explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the pointlessness of the never-ending definition arguments that it is fruitless? I’m not convinced.

    There are things that I know today that are so glaringly obvious that I would be embarrassed to blog about them, because I would be convinced that anyone reading it would think, “Wow, if he thinks this is worth writing about, he must be a complete dufus.” And yet, these are often things that I did NOT know when I started in the field. These ‘inward-looking’ discussions, IMO, will never end for exactly this reason — they are genuinely useful for people to experience… at least once.

  2. Right, I agree these discussions are useful. You’ll notice I’m not asking anyone to stop having these discussions.

    But I disagree that they will never end. I think if we had more interesting alternatives the questions would get answered in the course of doing the work of designing, rather than talking about it.

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