Lean Startup Methodology, Critical Design Theory: Separated at birth?

Lean startups use wild speculations about imaginary products to start conversations with customers aimed at eliciting real requirements. Critical Design aims to make things which provoke enlightening responses. Snap?

The lean startup asks prospective users and customers “Do you ever have this problem? Would one of these solve it for you?”.

Do examples in the video below just seem irrelevant?

The more difficulty you have in seeing how this video helps you find a practical use for critical design, the more of it you need to watch. It’s not easy. The examples are pretty darned abstract and extremely unbusinesslike. But that’s the point. You need to go a long way from the mundane in order to be able to imagine the unimagined.

Get yourself out of your requirement exploration comfort zone

For example, going from electronically triggered skin stimuli to composing electro-twitchily-inspired dance moves doesn’t sound like anyone would have a use for either of those two!

But what about thinking about it as the basis for a game, or a therapy, or even as a form of entertainment (applying all the appropriate safeguards, of course)?

What about as a shared online experience? As the marketing people would say ‘a myriad of application opportunities are opened up’ by something which seems just plain weird and useless.

Maybe you should get some lean startup inspiration from your local ‘critical design ninja’?

“Leans” not only asks these questions before the “one of these” in question has been fully developed, they often ask the question before “one of these” has been fully conceived, let alone had a prototype built.

The relationship between a lean startup and ‘product development’ is pretty close to the team’s relationship with design: it is speculative, minimalist, interactive, iterative and relentlessly rapid.

In practice, a ‘canonical’ lean startup, at its essence, can be so lean that it often even minimises the design effort, by mostly just sticking to meta-design, often restricting any pre-customer-consultation preparation to the job of coming up with nothing more than a description of a product.

Taking things to extremes (not exactly an unfamiliar lean startup trait) it can often obsess about deliberately minimising the level of detail in the description: at its ultimate, it can be uncompromisingly dogmatic about minimising the amount of time spent on refining the description prior to popping the question to unsuspecting proto-prospects.

Such characteristic and uniquely fanatical ‘attention to lack of detail’ is predicated on the notion that any time spent in extensive speculative preparation by designers and implementers produces less valuable input than iterative interaction with prospective users and customers.

Bad description: path to the holy grail?

Experience shows that a badly described ‘one of these’ that is not required is no less likely likely to turn into a clearly articulated ‘no, but I would gladly sell my soul if someone somewhere could make me this other thing that would make my life easier’ if the interaction is well handled.

The quality of the interaction almost inevitably plays a much bigger role in determining the outcome of the ‘interactive design process’ than the ‘initial proto-meta-design’ starting point of the conversation.

Every extra second beyond the absolute minimum time spent in the office on speculative design, or (heaven forbid) implementation is (according to lean startup doctrine) a wasted opportunity to spend that time productively interacting ‘outside of the building’.

Critical design theory is all about “things whose design is a deliberate response to what already exists in a culture” and/or “things whose design is intended to produce a response from a culture” in order to learn what that culture might want from a designer or producer.

I’m not sure critical design ever harbours any of the same kinds of concern (about systematically minimising design time and effort) that the lean startup movement upholds as tenets of faith (derived from the need for the startup to survive the hungry and precarious journey from inception to its own economic sustainability).

Nonetheless, such things as Critical Design Theory’s focus upon exploring and unearthing (as yet unexpressed) human and institutional requirements (as part of a sort of ‘culturally interpretative’ aim, in a way that is probably not all that different from the goals of critical literary theory) by such methods as ‘introducing provocative design ideas’ (such as using simulations, in an approach called ‘design fiction’, in the spirit of science fiction) seems to have more than a little in common with the lean startup methodology.

My own theory is that both ‘disciplines’ have much to offer to and to learn from one another.

Here’s a talk from one of the founding thinkers behind critical design theory.

Be warned, the ‘applications’ he demonstrates early on in the video seem to have very little to do with the kind of hard-nosed business-model-based exploration that a lean startup would be expecting to get involved with (they range from the seemingly pointlessly playful to the exclusively ‘arty’ with no clear commercial opportunities immediately apparent in some cases) but that’s the point:

What kinds of ‘requirement eliciting conversations’ do you want to start?

How far ‘off beam’ do you want to begin?

You may find the strange, dream-like quality of the student’s work that he demonstrates to be far too detached from the gritty world of ‘real, important problems that you’d like to solve’ but I’d be careful about just dismissing it all out of hand: the seemingly academic nature of the experiments that he’s presenting can prove to be excellent starting points  for uncovering genuine and potentially impactful needs.

In a way, what you see here should act as a licence for you to start your search for unmet needs in ‘unlikely’ fields of research.

Need to see where putting together some peculiar simulation will take you, in terms of thinking up some new requirements?

Why not visit your local university design department and find out if they’d be interested in putting it together as part of a project?

You may want to speak to both tutors and students.

Someone there may be just as keen to find new inspirations and ideas for experiments as you are to find new requirements to ask prospective customers about: it’s the kind of collaboration that surprisingly important innovations emerge from.

Speculative Everything – Anthony Dunne, Resonate 2013