Explicit Design: The Set Up

Though I’ve been blogging since 1998, it turns out I’m a “guru” and not a blogger. One of the things gurus must have is a drum to beat. A meme to promote. A conceptual hammer for the world’s nail.

Mark’s got “customer experience.”

37Signals guys have “contingency design” (or “defensive design.”)

BJ Fogg says “the web is about persuasion.”

Jakob, of course, has usability.

None of these are wrong or right. They all provide a lens through which to perceive the situation, and perhaps better understand it.

Well, I’ve got a Hurstian oversimplification. Through my work, what I’ve observed is that the web is all about managing expectations. Setting expectations, and then fulfilling them. That’s it. You do that right, and you’re golden.

The term I have right now for dealing with this is Explicit Design. This does not mean that it’s only for people over 18. It refers specifically to the primary definition:

fully revealed or expressed without vagueness, implication, or ambiguity : leaving no question as to meaning or intent.

Pretty much any digital design, be it web, software, mobile device, etc., must be *explicit*. Objects have an advantage, because their physical form makes explicit what it does, what to expect. Digital design, which tends to be screen-based, requires the development of explicit cues of use, since the physical form suggests little about what you can do with it.

This isn’t new. Don may have moved on, but I’m definitely re-treading on issues raised in The Design of Everyday Things. Affordances. Mapping. Mental models. etc.

Where things do shift a bit, when considering the web, is that the emphasis shifts from the physical to the semantic. The web is still mostly about meaning, information, yes, even persuasion. All of which, by nature, are abstractions. And which makes explicitness all the more important, because it must be performed consciously — it can’t be the by-product of a concrete design.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about. We’ll see where it takes us.

9 thoughts on “Explicit Design: The Set Up

  1. You missed out on getting dub-dub-dub explicitdesign dot com, though… It’s already taken by, well…pretty much what you’d think.

  2. I love the term and the specific phrasing of “managing expectations” (a much clearer focus for “experience design”), but I still think a good designer manages dreams and vision.

    God forbid we merely manage expectations, or we’d be stuck with LCD design that rarely spoke to anyone. I think the trick has always been to create an expereince that creates new, exciting, and useful (engaging) expectations, and then delivers.

    It’s kind of like “managing” expectations, but also not, IMO.

  3. been thinking about this a bit more and realised that while you had written about ‘explicit’ design – about fully revealing and making things clear, I was actually reading it as ‘deliberate’ design – ensuring that everything in a design is there for a reason and has been considered. A different, but equally interesting way of approaching problems.

  4. “Though I’ve been blogging since 1998, it turns out I’m a “guru” and not a blogger.”

    Who says?

  5. Yes! Right on. You’ve managed to express something I’ve been grappling for a while now in two simple words: explicit design. Thanks for the insight.

    Being explicit about design and about how teams conceive a design is, BTW, a point that I was trying to make in my presentation at the IA conference in Austin. Victor and George also presented some ideas about how to make the design process explicit (I believe). So, there seems to be momentum in this direction in general, at least within the IA community. But I think you’ve nailed here, Peter. Let me know if “explicit design” snowballs into something larger, like a book or community or such.

    Cheers,
    Jim

  6. “Where things do shift a bit, when considering the web, is that the emphasis shifts from the physical to the semantic.”

    Uh.. riiight.

    “The web is still mostly about meaning, information, yes, even persuasion.”

    The web is about meaning and information? How fascinating. Now what are books, TV, and radio “about”?

    “All of which, by nature, are abstractions. And which makes explicitness all the more important, because it must be performed consciously — it can’t be the by-product of a concrete design.”

    This is meaningless. Let me paraphrase to show why:

    1) The web is about meaning and information, which are abstractions
    2) therefore, explicitness is important
    3) explicitness must be performed consciously
    4) explicitness can’t be the by-product of a concrete design

    The jump from (1) to (2) is mysterious. In response to (3), what design can be performed unconsciously? To (4) — why not, and what is a “concrete” design anyway? Are these explicit designs you theorize made out of clouds instead of concrete?

    Sorry to be so harsh about it, but this post is anything but “explicit”.

  7. Peter, I’ve been going back over Don Norman, too. I don’t understand the difference between Explicit Design and plain old good design. Aren’t good designs almost defined by their ability to exceed expectation?

  8. Explicit Design… I like the concept!

    “The term I have right now for dealing with this is Explicit Design. This does not mean that it’s only for people over 18. It refers specifically to the primary definition:

    fully revealed or expressed without vagueness, implication, or ambiguity : leaving no question as to meaning or intent.”

    Well, sounds true and that’s why fascinating… but still… I would say that EXPLICIT DESIGN can be also applied to designs whish are aimed at being ambiguous… the Internet purposes different objects… and sometimes it is extremally important to provide the info in an intricate, tangled manner!

  9. This is an interesting idea, Peter. I’ve written some initial thoughts about this in an entry on my blog.