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Book review: Bella Martin and Bruce Hanington, ‘Universal methods of design’

Universal Methods of Design book cover

Bella Martin & Bruce Hanington (2012) ‘Universal methods of design’ Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers.

The title, nor the introduction specifies to which kind of design the methods apply, but somehow ‘software’ or ‘digital’ comes to my mind. This impression comes from a subtle reference in he introduction ‘It [the book] is also not about software, or the deliverable we develop’ (p. 7), from many examples that are about software, websites or other digital stuff, and perhaps from the lack of methods where I really can’t see how they could apply to software. The authors stress the human-centered design in their introduction, which makes a lot of sense to me as a database developer. Any which way, if you are designing software, database systems, websites or other digital stuff, this book deserves your attention.

The book indeed describes ‘100 Ways to research complex problems, develop innovative ideas, and design effective solutions.’ as it’s subtitle claims. Organized alphabetically, each method receives two pages of attention. One page describes what it can be used for, outlines the the method and provides a few references for further reading to literature or websites. The other page is dedicated to an example and includes ample graphic material: sketches, screen prints, photos, diagrams and so on.

Each method is accompanied by an indication of the design phase, or phases, for which it is most suited (1 Planning; 2 Exploration, synthesis and design implications; 3 Concept generation and early prototyping; 4 Evaluation, refinement and production; 5 Launch, monitoring and ‘course correction’) as well as a set of keywords further categorizing the method: Behavioral/Attitudinal, Quantitative/qualitative, Innovative/Adapted/Traditional; Exploratory/Generative/Evaluative; Particpatory/Observational/Self reporting/Expert review/Design process. Although my use of slashes suggests it, none of these sets are meant as mutually exclusive. So a method can for example be both qualitative and quantitative.

The strengths are, in my view, the systematic setup, the very clear language as to what a method can be used for and the concise descriptions of sometimes very complex methods. As a former social scientist I am familiar with some of them and I haven’t read any nonsense or superfluous remarks about them.

Another great thing about the book is simply the list of one hundred methods. It’s probably a selection from many many more, but the diversity is amazing. In other words, it may be worth your while to browse them all and see which ones you don’t know that you could put to good use or give a try.

On the downsides are two main points. The first is that the equal treatment of method in terms of dedicated pages is misleading because it suggest they are of similar size or complexity, which is patently not the case. To stick to what I am familiar with: a case study (method #11) is far more complex than doing an interview or a series of interviews (#48), if only because interviews can be part of a case study, next to among others literature reviews (#53), surveys (#83), stakeholder maps (#80) and content analysis (#17). Please note that I don’t mean to say that any of these constituent methods are simple. This problem of the equal treatment could be fixed to some degree, but it should at least be taken as a warning to the reader. If you want to learn a method, do invest more than just reading the two pages. The couple of references that the book provides are a good start, but in many cases probably only just that. Another solution to this problem brings me to the next point.

The second downside concerns the accessibility of these hundred alphabetically ordered methods. If you know which method you are looking for, the alphabetical order is handy, but if you know the method already, you don’t need this book. The indication of the design method and the keywords are a big help, but the book could have done more.

Firstly, additional indexing would be a great help. The table of contents provides the design phase(s) of each method, so if you are looking for methods concerning step 4, you will quickly find what you need. However, when it comes to the other keywords, the only thing to do is to browse the book. Is it too much to ask to at least list the methods per keyword at the end of the book?

Another set of additions would be more tagging. For example some indication of the complexity of each method in relation to the others would be helpful. It would be difficult and probably amount to a form of academic rape but for the designers that might not be a problem. Also, indications of the minimum team size, duration of the method, required resources and the number of users/participants would be helpful. Not all design is done in teams, budgets vary as do sizes of user populations. Quickly accessible knowledge about such aspects would be very handy while browsing the book. Last but not least, relations between methods could come in very handy: if you know about interviews and network mapping, than perhaps an easy next step would be case studies.

All this tagging and indexing to make the book accessible would be nice extras, but that does not take away that, as it is, it already is a good read and a treasure trove of design methods. Perhaps not all methods apply to your needs, wishes and circumstances as a designer, but those may change and as long as they don’t, I am sure there will be some interesting methods for you left worth exploring.

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