Design as Energy Exchange

by on November 1, 2012
in book, design

An Excerpt taken from, The Value of The Infinite
The core concept that good design minimizes the exchange of human effort/or energy – to achieve a desired result.

Energy shows up in design as friction and how much human effort or energy, and resources are required to overcome it. The primary benefit of looking at a designed system through the ‘energy lens’ is that it surfaces mental friction sources, as well as physical hurdles. By articulating the emotional thought barriers of a design problem, we can more closely align solutions with unarticulated ’emotional’ human needs. By acknowledging each of the friction points (thought and physical) in this way we can think holistically about solutions that incorporate the emotional needs, as well as the (more typically addressed) physical needs of human beings within designed systems.

Before we jump in, I should hedge… because ‘people are snowflakes,’ none of us is completely alike. So while writing about something so abstract as ‘human thought energy’, please assume the best possible intent here. Don’t take this as a literal document of ‘how all people are.’ This is my sincerest attempt to articulate a human pattern that I have observed within myself, with other designers, customers, usability participants, colleagues, and all of the beautiful human beings that I have had the grace of sharing life with. Ok then, with that, let’s begin with a design problem.

‘Transportation from home to work for a new passenger, during the week, within a reasonable time constraint of thirty minutes.’

For example, ‘how many minutes does it take to get to work from home on the local transit?’ Is one poignant and simple measurement of a public transit system. And if we look more deeply, thinking about this scenario in terms of energy expenditure (overall human effort) what are the real costs? What are the true hurdles? What are the hidden barriers? What can we learn about humans and how they behave, make decisions, and take action? Let’s start by codifying the various friction points for the scenario above, ‘the morning commute on public transit’ and expose the subtle implications of human energies required to successfully navigate an existing system to the desired outcome.

Thought friction for a new passenger on public transit in the form of, questioning:
▪ How long will it take to get from my current location to my desired destination?
▪ Is this time investment acceptable relative to alternatives?
▪ What are the alternatives?
▪ How far away is the pickup or transit location from my current location?
▪ How long will it take to get to the pickup/transit location?
▪ What will the weather be like?
▪ Will I have to make other investments to do this sustainably?
▪ Will this be a sustainable solution?
▪ What will the impact to my day/other regular commitments be?
▪ Are there hidden costs I’m not taking into account?
▪ How much will this cost?
▪ How will I pay?
▪ How do the costs relate to the costs of alternatives?
▪ How will I feel doing this?
▪ How will others feel about me doing this?
▪ How will I feel about myself doing this?
▪ How will this impact my other needs (social, survival, etc.)?
▪ Will I still need to have other transportation alternatives?
▪ Who else relies on me now for transportation?
▪ Would it be easier if I lived somewhere else?
▪ Do I really want to relocate?
▪ Where can I get answers to all of my questions?
▪ This is overwhelming, what can I do?

I’m sure there are many, many more questions, but there’s enough here to provide a reliable example. As humans approaching any new solution to a life problem, we expend a lot of energy thinking, primarily in the form of questioning. We have very long, complex conversations with ourselves. This is how we begin. We question until we have created enough hunger, enough internal motivation, to take action by physically seeking information. This critical last question, ‘What can I do?’ is the question we ask ourselves to inspire action, and it is here that thought energy begins to trend towards action.

However, before actual action is taken, generally we (at least most of us) expend even more ‘thought energy’ solutioning. Solutioning is word that I use to imply the expenditure of energy simply thinking about different ways to solve problems, or more specifically to find answers to questions. The motivation and goal of solutioning is to find within ourself the most effective action that will produce the most beneficial solution to our satiate our self-invented hunger. Here are some examples of solutioning.

Thought friction for a new passenger on public transit in the form of, solutioning:
▪ I could look online at the metro website to get more information
▪ I could call metro and ask them questions about how all this works
▪ I could call my friend to ask him how he gets around
▪ I could map out various routes and figure out how much time is involved
▪ I could review my finances to figure how much I’m spending on vehicle payments, maintenance, repairs, and gas
▪ I could try it out when I don’t have other commitments, and see what it’s like
▪ What should I do first?
▪ What will give me the most important answers first?
▪ What do i need to know first?
▪ What is most important?

I just love this. This is human ingenuity at work from the perspective of pure thought energy. I love how amazingly powerful we humans are at solving problems. From here we are actively expending energy (literally burning calories) thinking about actionable solutions to our questions, but we are still just thinking. This is still energy, no physical action, yet. Additionally, we often do this segment of thinking in the blink of an eye, going through such a process often times so quickly that it might only be literally a few seconds, before we graduate to the next step, decision making.

Thought friction for a new passenger on public transit in the form of, decision making:

Deciding importance:
▪ I need to know how far it is to the station and how to get there
▪ Then I need to know how far the stop is from my work

Deciding actions:
▪ I’ll go online and figure that out
▪ Then I’ll try it out on Tuesday

Assumptions emerge – beliefs about the future:
▪ I assume I can just pay with my debit card when I get there

Aspirations emerge – visualizations of the future:
▪ I hope it isn’t raining, damn where is my umbrella

Wow, so all of this, in our own heads, before a single physical action is taken. How many calories were consumed just getting to an idea of what to actually do? Are these the right actions? Are we focused on the right things? What can we take away here as designers? What can we learn from the energy exchange of thinking to improve design solutions? What can we learn about ourselves, with regard to how our own expenditure of thought energy is leveraged, and most interestingly, how close is all of this to how your own mind works?