W e can precisely calculate the length of time that humans have been developing problem-solving techniques:
1) Start with the length of time that there have been humans.
2) Subtract the 3 seconds that it took them to start having problems.
3) Subtract the 5 additional seconds that it took them to start looking for solutions.
Ever since that specific moment, whenever an appeal to typical solutions have failed, humans have searched for approaches that were more creative. Those very endeavors have given rise the likes of:
- divination (i.e., reading runes, cards, stars, entrails, and so on);
- horizon expansion (art, science, environment, tools);
- narration (creating, telling, and critiquing stories);
- riddles (of the ‘raven like a writing desk’ sort);
- deliberation (internal and communal); and
- other stuff (often combining these).
As entrenchment came to be identified as the nemesis of creativity, escape skills increased in value; in fact, right up into the last few decades we have witnessed the appearance of Osborn’s brainstorming and von Oech’s whack.
Reasoned Impulse scaffolds you into the skillful practice of the one technique that is fundamental to all of the creative problem-solving approaches listed above.
This essential method relies on evidence-based research in the fields of cognitive science, linguistics, natural language processing, assistive technology, interaction design, and communication disorders and sciences. As an entrenchment escape strategy, it also appeals to a modicum of mysticism.
Curious? Excellent. Reasoned Impulse has a tutorial component built right in.
Now, it is true that Reasoned Impulse is not for everybody.
But it might be just right for you.
The following link will lead you to the (heavily canned) demo, with a theme chosen to support visual accessibility:
This is the YouTube video:
I will now describe how the prototype got to this point (per the requirements of the final assignment), but the emphasis will rest on the identification and expansion of the function that this app is designed to serve, namely the liberation of inspiration.
If you make it through the first section, the rest of the article should flash right on by.
1. Needfinding Observations
Out of all of the stages of this development process, I was most interested in the intense needfinding.
For one thing, you want a solid foundation for any product. If you’ve got at least a passing familiarity with Western(-ish) culture, the Three Little Pigs will have taught you to build a brick… house, which I am reliably informed is mighty mighty. (Bless you Shirley Hanna-King.)
For another, these notions (about entrenchment escape skills) represent the culmination of my endeavors (and suspicions) across a sweep of broadly related fields over the course of decades; so naturally, I was fascinated by the prospect of exploring any broader consensus reality beyond my individual imagination.
In Week 1, I chose to focus on the design brief for Change, which the course sums up as follows:
“Design an interface that facilitates personal or social behavior change.”
There wasn’t any one place where I could go to profitably observe people changing, not without imposing unwanted constraints on the activity; that is to say, while there are “change places” like the gym, group therapy, schools, churches, and so on, that kind of target would tend to aim the observation at the pragmatic needs associated with those specific locations.
What I really wanted to observe was the activity in people’s heads; in other words, I would need participants who could describe their internal states well enough to offer them up for my eager observation. But having them describe something as broad as “change” would only be helpful with a large enough number of participants for some sort of pattern to fall out… or some needle to stick me from out of its haystack. I simply had too few participants available for that to be likely to happen.
So I narrowed the scope of my attention to one well-known challenge in the pursuit of change, namely bogging down in local minima (which is a form of entrenchment). People often surrender to a sense of (learned) helplessness because all of their previous plans have failed, and they haven’t been able to come up with additional ideas that are different enough from the old plans to feel liberating.
In some sense, I was begging the question (about what the users’ needs might be); however, there was clear value in examining this meta-level: what sort of creative problem-solving techniques do people use to make their way past obstacles that are blocking their access to creative problem-solving techniques? What do you need when you are stuck about becoming unstuck?
It is true that some people do manage to succeed by taking yet another run with a previously failed plan; somehow, they find it in themselves to make it through, or they recruit some sort of necessary external support. But those people are not the people who are stuck. They are not the ones who might need my app.
I wanted to learn more about what was going on specifically when someone felt stagnated. What were they doing (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and so on) that was still proving to be insufficient to flick them up over the limits of the nearest horizon?
So I wasn’t interested (at this point) in what finally helped them to succeed in changing. I wanted to know what helped them to access the opportunity to change (win or lose), when it had been blocked earlier. The notion would be to identify their method of escape from the sense of helplessness… and then bottle it. (Or clamshell it. Or ring-box it. Or whatever. Now is not the stage to make packaging decisions.)
Having thought things through to that point, I recruited some participants for observation. Note that the following portraits have been pseudo-ed to honor the participants’ requests that their anonymity be preserved.
Sam is a math-brained AI programmer (mid-40s) who is high up in the management chain of a private R&D firm. He spends about half of his week with his two teenage offspring at his house, and the rest in social contact with his friends. He used to get out and about quite a bit with other people, often in nature, or to such venues as restaurants, bars, and movies, but COVID restrictions redirected him to online interactions.
There is a particular change that Sam is trying to introduce into his life, but he has had no success. He has tried a number of different plans, and felt (not long before the time of our interview) that he had been stuck without inspiration for months. I was one of the people to whom he reached out in search of new ideas, which reinforced my notion that this was an area of need for some people. That phone conversation had been a type of observation event.
During the interview, Sam was able to describe past instances where he had found inspiration in self-help materials (e.g., books, websites, podcasts, and so on). But in cases where those sources had been exhausted, or when the problem was too obscure to be the subject of such materials, Sam most reliably found that his friends were good brainstorming partners.
Referring to this as his “shotgun method,” Sam told me that he knew enough people that if he just kept asking around, then he was bound to find someone who could help him to inject some atypical, added energy into his thoughts, and boost him out of the trap.
Except, of course, when that hadn’t worked.
What he found valuable in himself was an ability to connect (a) whatever odd things his friends might suggest to (b) his particular problem at hand. But there were times when he wanted more practice with that connectionism.
I found myself considering a way to generalize Sam’s connectionist ability to information sources other than his friends, because the output (or just the process of trying to create the output) would act as a creative boot to the head. And I know something about that.
Among many other things, I have been a professional card reader (in person and over the phone). After far too long, I finally quit because I realized that I was providing a service around a talent that people should be developing in themselves: an ability to read the world. I had been fostering dependence, which was not good. Since then, I have been teaching people to fish instead, as the saying goes. It occurred to me that this app might be a helpful tool in that pursuit.
Minnie works part-time as a librarian, describing herself as a textbook introvert. She is a mom (in her late 30s) in a fairly typical “nuclear” family.
I interviewed Minnie because she mentioned (some months ago) that she finally managed to break an entrenched habit. Her story renewed my interest in the notion of being mired in old failed plans, and yet then escaping through an inspirational event.
What Minnie ended up doing was generating a relatively random Dewey decimal index number, and then finding the associated book in the library. It turned out there was more that one candidate, but they were strongly related to one another (of course, since the point of the system is to locate books together by topic). Minnie then tried to generate connections between the problem in which she was stuck (smoking), and the randomly selected topic of the books (chromolithography).
It turned out that this activity was enough to jar her thoughts loose from their historical anchor, and she was able to come up with a new plan.
Now, as it happens, that plan failed (i.e., the one with the grease, water, and cigarettes), but the following one worked, namely: a book on hopscotch persuaded her to jump over to a new habit, which replaced smoking, and then she dropped the replacement habit. That is a known technique, but she struck on it through curiosity-guided blundering. And that is not too terribly different from the function that we want to provide for Sam.
Plus Minnie would like something handier than her decimal system. It is hard to generate random sequences when you have the codes memorized… or to treat the first and last pages of a phone book just as randomly as all the others (for example).
Chris is a college student going for their BS in Philosophy, with the specific (whimsical) intent of opening a quaint philosophy shoppe in their hometown (explicitly to meet “a growing demand of people waxing”).
Unlike the other participants, Chris did not have a familiar strategy for getting unstuck (having not been stuck very often, it seems… ah, youth); however, they did have: a) a long-term habit that they wanted to leave behind, b) no solid idea about how to come up with a new approach, c) no serious sense of urgency, and d) a rather blithe confidence in their luck.
Left to their own devices, they tried internet searches, but soon found that to be a rather dull activity (possibly tied to their lack of urgency); however, they had been increasing their familiarity with reading divinatory card layouts, and soon turned to that method. That version of the process of connectionism spoke to them, and they were able to envision a path where they would be able to send the habit off on its own road, in some direction away from them.
We were on a walk, talking about the liberating value of the random concept connection method, when we happened across a sizable slug. It occurred to Chris that general observation or reading of the surrounding world could be used in a similar fashion, and that the slug would be a concept. Their shoe might be another. That elicited a surprisingly productive conversation about shoes that might have a sole like a slug’s foot, and so on. Thus were “Muces” born (i.e., mucus-Nikes®, proud Oregonians that we are).
After completing that assignment, I continued to contact a few other people to elicit more information. I’m not going to relate all of that additional interview material here, but I did fold some of into the pseudalyzed personalities above. Many of these people had tried variations on the emerging themes: talking with other people; chaotic distractions; sessions with various types of mystics and counselors; more intense research; and so on. Others of them just felt bad about not making any progress.
Much of the observation tended to highlight an appeal to a narrative skill that is associated with the reading of signs (as such), often as a matter of turning to someone else who had more practice with that skill. It was the same skill that I had recognized earlier as being of benefit to anyone who could achieve some amount of independence.
2. Distillation of Users’ Needs
The next step distilled all of that information into an organized structure.
Sam (our social butterfly)
Sam needs a concept source other than familiar conversation with his friends (because they are sometimes caught in the same trap).
Sam needs a way to share his favorite transconnecting descriptions… maybe something that functions as a social media hook.
Sam needs to be able to say which concepts are more (or less) like him, as that is an important part of his inspiration.
Sam is so social that — in order not to feel isolated — he needs a kindred spirit (another user) with whom to practice… almost like a chess partner, or perhaps a whole social media community, or wiki; in other words, it needs to be able to grow from social watering.
Sam might even benefit from a game-like experience, possibly competitive. It might be good to have a sort of brain-training, word game version available to encourage practice.
Minnie (our intellectual introvert)
Minnie needs something other than her existing Dewey decimal concept generation system.
Minnie needs all manner of bells and whistles around organizing the content, such as: the ability to pin one or more of the concepts (i.e., change some, but not others); definitions; recategorization (and other tailoring of the conceptual space); and maybe even rhymes.
Minnie needs to be able to save off her version of reality for later reference (and further mucking about).
Minnie needs an associated meditation function to help leverage her “nap verge” time, which seems to be an alpha-cycle creative state.
Minnie might not need a concept-of-the day function, but she would certainly like one.
Chris (our mystic, synaesthetic/ideasthetic, healthy schizotype)
Chris needs not only random concepts, but also predictable ones that will act as anchoring position/location concepts, similar to the dynamic that is apparent in a divinatory card layout.
While the activity is already ideasthetic in nature, Chris needs some sort of specifically synaesthetic aspect as well (i.e., that is non-trivially sensory).
Relatedly, Chris needs some sort of visual (and maybe auditory) display to go along with the verbal concept, which could be something as simple as a color, or a picture image, or what you might imagine could be rendered by a relatively chaotic collage from an image search (or… something).
Chris needs more than just two concepts to be presented at a time.
Chris would benefit from hooks prompting them out into the natural world.
Summary of the Users’ Needs
The observations suggested considering some sort of scaffold to nurture the prerequisite skills for reading the world itself (in order to gain some sort of liberating boost to inspiration). It should be:
- easily accessible;
- teeming with concepts;
- random-to-chaotic in its choices of which concepts to present; and
- somehow tutorial in transconnective skills (in which any given concept can be semantically linked to any other).
The user should experience a creative “boot to the head” from engaging in the activity.
As described earlier, my observations focused on a well-known challenge to the pursuit of Change, namely the creeping inability to see any paths for escaping one’s local horizons (i.e., an insidious increase in the rigid stagnation of one’s cognition).
These observations all suggested the pursuit of some sort of head booter based on random concept connection skills. It would be something that could give people practice until they learned to use the world around them (as well as the world inside of them) as a source of random concepts for connecting in a liberating fashion.
Fortunately for everyone involved, I enjoy some expertise in this area. Truly, sometimes I just sit around this area saying, “My, isn’t some of this expertise just so enjoyable?”
(And it had better be. I certainly paid enough for it.)
So now to figure out how to help this all to be born into the real world.
The point of view was becoming something like this:
- Read the world around and within you.
- Explore that map to emerge well beyond your local horizons.
People often surrender to a sense of helplessness because all of their previous plans have failed, and they feel unable to come up with additional ideas that are different enough from the old plans to feel liberating.
People need access to the opportunity for change, when it has been blocked.
When a person is mired in the same old strategies, and feels unable to imagine any new window of opportunity leading out of their trap, then they need a means of creating a new perspective… one with a view beyond their fenced yard.
The following sorts of words proved to be inspiring:
Read, Chaos, Deliberate, Epiphany, Dawn, Emerge, Transconnect, Impulse, Orienteer, Evolve, Intuit, Escape
That focus of attention created enough of a filter to make it worth seeing what sorts of materials/products were already available. Nothing seemed to fit the bill, so I’ll just bullet some examples from a much more involved analysis:
- There are all manner of self-help books and sites out there, and we have mentioned products by the likes of Osborn and von Oech. But I wanted to train people in the fundamental skill that makes people good at engaging in those activities.
- A literary quote can speak to the user, suggesting a path out of their bind; however, the quote tends to be treated as the end point (i.e., as advice in itself), rather than as fuel for the inspiration process.
- Many online sources display intrusive visual and emotional clutter. Ads and banners can be sensationalistic, targeting fragile users, and containing material that might be unpredictably distressing; in other words, when looking for a solution to a problem, you might not want to be forced to wallow in discomforting messages. This suggested a need for the app to provide some sort of content filtering for the user, with adjustment over time.
- There is an underlying aspect to divinatory layouts that reflects the POV of this project, particularly when the connection of unpredictable concepts is fed into a proficient reader’s narrative building skills. I do not want to tie the student to a specific set of forms (e.g., decks, runes, palms, and so on). I want to scaffold them into reading the world in general, reducing the risk of cognitive confinement.
- There are random word sites out there (some of which I quite like), as well as those that will populate syntactic templates. These are interesting, but they don’t help to build the connectivity skills.
And that briefly sums up what I looked at for inspiration.
And now this article gets less wordy, as did the tasks. It was time to display these ideas in terms of a storyboard. This is the set that describes the basic idea (where the other laid out the game / competitive / social version):
The whole notion was to not spend any time worrying needlessly about details that might not even exist in the next iteration.
This step is where I started to realize (when I was unable to capture this idea in 5–8 frames) that my app wasn’t falling into the pattern of the others that I was seeing. This wasn’t going to be eCommerce, social media, scheduling, recipes, transportation… or any of that. I just figured, “Oh well… I guess that things look different just this side of 60 rather than just that side of 20.”
5. Paper Prototype
And here is what that sketching started to look like as a paper prototype:
This helped me to realize that the vast majority of my coding projects are not associated with teams. I tend to work stuff out in my head, which is fine as I am not needing to share, and I pretty much move straight into words without sketches, such as outlines and pseudocode. So this was an interesting change.
6. Heuristic Evaluation
The heuristic evaluation [HE] was particularly valuable for providing an objective perspective on just how odd a user might think this function is, much less the app itself. The HE didn’t help nearly as much when it came to figuring out viable solutions for atypical problems; then again, that’s not really what it’s designed to do.
The vast majority of the comments dealt with the need for more explanation around the intended purpose of the app, and the meanings of the terms that were used in the interface. Which was not terribly surprising.
This “transconnection app” serves an unusual (although important) function, so it doesn’t gain the benefit of a user’s familiarity with conventional sites. A whole lot more scaffolding would need to be built in.
All in all, I made a good dozen substantive changes based on the results of the HE, and was also able to project out a hefty set of stretch goals.
The assignment asked for an initial step into the navigation, but because this was a tutorial, I really needed to get the full flow in place at this point. I had created a wireframe of an anchor page in Affinity Design:
But it quickly became clear that I would need to learn Sketch, Craft, and InVision.
So I did.
I also found out that the course was really designed to produce an app with a mobile form factor, which is not the best choice when you want the user to type in considerable amounts of text. I ended up making both, and then setting the mobile one aside at the end.
I went so overboard on the plan that I’m not going to copy it here. (Henry Gantt invaded my dreams and said, “Daaamn!”) Things like this can get involved when I enter “Detail Oriented” mode.
The course also asks for some attention on the fact that life constraints exist; for example, I was only able to attend to this outside of conventional work hours, and I prioritize family time, and so on. But the project fit into my life nonetheless.
9. Ready for Testing
At this stage, the first form of the canned demo was prepped.
This app is not really a content management display (or similar), so the typical tasks did not really fit (e.g., ordering shoes, buying tickets, consulting maps, or making appointments).
So the task that I set the user was simply to: a) become familiar with the scaffolded problem-solving technique (by working their way through the steps); and b) to imagine what it might be like to use this technique to get unstuck with a real-life problem.
10. Test the Prototype
The initial pass through the canned demo was straightforward. It provided a chance to try out the draft of the testing protocol and script, and the feedback allowed not only for some general adjustment, but also for the development of the ‘A’ and ‘B’ versions that would be used later.
Much of that commentary led to straightforward changes: altering field backgrounds so as not to give the impression of buttons; further clarifying tutorial text; mocking up access to internet information sources about the random concepts; and noting the general accessibility issues (such as with the harsh black-on-white contrast).
As for the A/B variants, the users identified one of the two tutorial examples (i.e., ‘diatom’) as much more obscure than the other (i.e., ‘antacid’). I decided to find out whether a difference in the order in which they were viewed might be associated with the amount of time spent in the app, or perhaps the user choosing to run through the examples more than once.
11. Results of A/B Testing
The course requires the use of the UserTesting site, which dictated the nature of some of our components.
What came as a surprise was the difference between the behavior of (a) the amateur users who had tested the app in the previous week, and (b) the (semi-)professional users who work for UserTesting. That variation pretty much set everything on its ear.
This was the Introduction narrative that was displayed to all four testers:
“Imagine that you would like to change something. It could be about yourself, the world, or whatever you like.
Next, imagine that you have been having a difficult time coming up with new ideas about how to make that change. So you are feeling stuck.
Finally, while talking this situation over with a friend, they suggest that you try an app called Deliberate Impulse. They describe it as something like a word game that will help to shake loose some new ideas.”
The amateur users had no problem at all with this scenario, but it took all of the pros somewhat aback. It was evident from their facial expressions, and hesitations during reading, that this is not the type of app that they are used to testing; that said, they seemed to take it in stride after a time, indicating that they expected that the subsequent task explanation would bring things back to their experience of normal.
Which, unfortunately, it did not do.
In fact, this was their only instruction… which had been fine with the non-pro users:
“Your only substantial instruction is to walk yourself through the site, clicking on whatever catches your fancy. Some things are active buttons, and other things are not. You can’t go wrong with this… there is nothing that you need to learn, and you will not be quizzed.
This early prototype won’t allow you to actually enter any information, so that part of the app is all mocked up (in blue or green text); however, you should still be able to get a sense of what it might be like to use this app to learn and apply the creative technique that it scaffolds.
I hope that you find this to be entertaining.”
I understand that the task that I set was pretty non-directive. But my interest lies in finding out whether the user is intrigued by the notion of learning about the technique, so the task is described in a loose manner around following what catches their interest.
That said, once again, it was apparent from the use of cautious tone of voice, hesitance about starting the task, clicking on the UserTesting UI rather than the app’s buttons, and so on, that this is not the type of experience that they were used to encountering.
It took until the fourth tester for it to become apparent that the use of InVision prototypes itself was unfamiliar to these people, despite their experience with UserTesting. I was not expecting that at all, given the guidance up until this point in the course. That fourth person specifically mentioned being unsure about whether InVision’s left and right navigation arrows were part of the demo to be tested. If I had known that InVision itself would be interpreted as a layer, then I could have included clarifying information in the instructions.
And then we hit a big snag.
According to UserTesting support, they provide a “Balanced Competitor” feature that is designed specifically to divide the cohort for A/B testing. It is supposed to direct 2 (of 4 total) users to version A, and then 2 of them to version B.
Unfortunately, that’s not what it actually did.
The Balanced Competitor template has you set up a task for Group A (i.e., the group using V.A), and then a separate task for Group B (i.e., who will use V.B). The descriptions of those two tasks are, in this case, duplicates of one another (i.e., Task 1A and Task 1B), because my versions only differ in the order in which the 2 tutorial examples will be encountered. The task itself remains the same.
But instead of dividing the 4 recruited users between those 2 groups (i.e., 2 users in A and 2 in B), it had each of the 4 testers walk through V.A (as Task 1A), and then through V.B (as Task 1B).
That created a mess. The testers expressed all manner of confusion… as well they should have done.
The most prominent finding among the 4 users is that this sort of tutorial app, i.e., one that significantly relies on the user’s text input as part of the teaching, is simply a poor match for this sort of prototyping. Of course, that would go for any app that relied on functions that lay beyond those that the prototyping software can provide. Next time I’ll know better, but this time is too late. So… lesson learned.
For the iteration that I have provided to you, I have made some changes. I have explicitly labeled simulated text input/output in any place that it appears. I also added a whole lot more commentary to act as guidance.
As for the A/B test, I got another surprise. Whereas earlier, the amateur users had clicked on the dictionary/encyclopedia buttons just out of curiosity (and so received that tutorial boost), these experienced testers did not use them at all. That part of the app is helpful in displaying what it’s all about, so I added notes on the accessing pages to prompt that exploration.
Similarly, unlike the non-pro users (who poked through everything), only one of the 3 experienced testers went down the path where the A/B change was located. The amateur users had all gone in that direction, so it didn’t occur to me that I might need to lead the experienced bulls by the nose.
12. Fit and Finish
The original name of the app had been Inspiration Liberation, but I wanted to capture the oxymoronic quality of a calculated leap of faith, so I changed over to Deliberate Impulse; however, when 2 of the testers read that out loud as an imperative (i.e., deliber-8), I shifted to Reasoned Impulse, which (as it turns out) I like better.
I then themed the app in oxblood-on-cream to make it easier on the eyes. The actual app will provide the user with access to a broader range of selections than that, as well as font selections and so on.
The following is a link to the canned demo in its current state:
The next step will involve some sort of HTML conversion, then coding, which will allow for the addition of all of the following:
- real user input
- real app output (including queries to the language databases)
- additional attention to the tutorial pedagogy
- functional dictionary/encyclopedia source lookups and concept refresh
- functional image retrieval (and collaging, which is a project in itself)
- divinatory layouts of various sorts; and
- user accounts, which will lead us to…
- state/snapshot storage and retrieval
- community / game / competitive / sharing versions
So there is plenty of work in store.
13. And Finally