Design Criteria and Design Imagination

Design Criteria and Design Imagination

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We all want better social systems! We want social networks rich in meaningful relationships, organizations which allow for great individual agency, political institutions that produce great collective decisions, and so on.

But to get there, we must face two big challenges: one is about design criteria, the other is about imagination.

Better Criteria

When designing for an individual, it might be enough to focus on their goals (Jobs to Be Done), feelings (“calm” design, “delightful” interactions, and most UX design), or life situation (Personas).

This isn’t good enough for social systems. To design a good social environment, you need to understand how people want to live and relate with others. In our terminology, you need to understand their values. You need to know what they find meaningful.

Many designers can guess others’ goals and feelings, can empathize about them, and can design for them. But few can see other people and social environments in terms of values. Doing this often requires a shift in how you see yourself—if you see yourself mostly in terms of goals, or in terms of feelings, learning to see yourself in values can be life-changing. And you need to do this, to collect good values from users.

We tackle this problem in Quest 1 at 


Broader Imagination

Most people, even leading designers (inventors of voting systems, social networks, etc) can only imagine changing their designs in certain ways. Other changes don’t occur to them.

So, when designers at Facebook think about harassment or spam, they mostly think about exclusion (“Bad Actors”). They miss other kinds of changes, because they haven’t trained their design imagination. For instance

  • New Kinds of Relationships. Imagine a buddy system, with shared responsibility for posts.
  • Settings for Posting. Or giving posters a clearer sense of their likely audience, and how much time that audience will spend with the post.
  • Legitimation Changes. Or peer-to-peer fact checking, the staged release of posts, or posts with clear criteria that determine their level of visibility, which the audience can engage with.

What’s true for social networks is just as true for dinner parties or voting systems. Dinner hosts think about setting, but not — for instance — how topics get picked. Designers of voting systems think about incentives, but not about the settings which would lead to more thoughtful votes, or about relationship types aside from voter and proposer.

In Quest 2, we overcome this lack of imagination with specificity and breadth of prototypes.

  • Specificity. We get nerdy about how environments affect people. For instance, speaking honestly might be harder in noisy rooms or with little time. Why is that? Perhaps because honesty involves reflecting, and this requires time and quiet. Honesty may also be difficult between online ‘creators’ and their audience. Why? Perhaps honesty requires more nuanced relationships, like mentor, confidant, etc. In an exercise called “Action Maps”, we break values like honesty into small necessary actions we call “hard steps”. These show why a value is hard in one environment, but not another.
  • Breadth of Prototypes. We develop your design imagination by focusing on different areas in turn, and you make a prototypes and play design games in each area. You’ll take a value that you care about (e.g., a type of curiosity you value) and make many separate prototypes and designs. First, you’ll study the kinds of relationships that foster it; then, what settings and timings support your kind of curiosity; which kinds of social network shapes and information flows support it; what kinds of people support it; and finally, what incentives support your value and what might undermine it.

This Program Meets Your Life and Work

We've structured our program so it can work with your existing design projects.

The problem of design criteria — the focus of Quest 1 — is closely related to user research. In this quest, you’ll take a population you want to serve, and learn where they can live by their values, and where their values are suppressed. You’ll learn to write their values, and your own, unambiguously. Then, in Quest 2, you’ll build your design imagination. You’ll use games and make interpersonal simulations of your ideas, zooming in on designs that support the values you’ve collected. Finally, in Quest 3, you’ll do a full design, of something you intend to implement.

This all requires user research techniques that will be new to you, and more prototyping than you might expect — but we believe it will accelerate your design project overall, for an investment of only a couple hours a week.

If you use the textbook as part of 

, you’ll also get a team of lifelong collaborators. Your guide will try to recognize connections that can be made, and missions you can be sent on, that will open up your world. We can do that for many types of students — academic researchers, busy startup founders, corporate execs. We’ll use our whole network to find the best people for you to practice with and to help you design.