How to Make Better Life Decisions through Design Thinking and Prototyping
There comes a point when you can no longer rely on the Magic 8 ball to provide the best path for major life decisions. Stanford University lecturer Dave Evans has a better idea.
Dave Evans joined the Stanford Design Program in 2007 where he teaches the popular Designing Your Life courses. Evans' passion is to help undergrads and grads apply the innovative principles of design thinking to the wicked problem of designing your life after Stanford. Dave obtained his BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering and returns to Stanford following 30+ years of executive leadership and management consulting in high technology. Evans product managed the first mouse and early laser-printing projects at Apple, was a co-founder of Electronic Arts, and has consulted to dozens of startups and major corporations.
Dave Evans: There are lots of ways to think. And what you want is you want a toolkit of ways to think and you want ways to think to be aligned with the problems you're thinking about. So we talk about sort of four examples of ways of thinking. There's engineering thinking, which is very prevalent in modern society because we're a technical society and engineers solve pain problems to which there are clear repeatable solutions. Once I figure out how to build the Brooklyn Bridge I can build it again and again; it will work every time. That's a hard problem but it's a tame problem. It's well behaved. It will act tomorrow just like it acted today.
Business problems you use optimization thinking. There's no right answer to your branding, no right answer to your market share, but you can optimize and that's a different kind of thinking. Researchers do analytic thinking. They thought with a premise. They think thin slice it down. They've got a questioning the process. Those are ways of thinking. What we call wicked problems, that's a technical term developed by some urban planners at Berkeley back in the '70s, a wicked problem is one where the criteria for success are unclear, constantly changing; you won't know you got the right answer until you find it; and once you found it you can't reuse it again. You can't rebuild New York City somewhere else. You can't be Dave Evans again. You can't be somebody else again. So wicked problems are inherently human problems and they're messy problems and they're trying to intersect a future that none of us knows enough about.
So how do you do that? You can't analyze that. So you build your way for it. In design we build our way forward. And we build our way forward by sneaking up on the future through this iteration of prototypes; get curious; ask a question; understand it; try something; learn something; do it again, do it again until you get enough of an idea that you can implement and actually solve the problem.
We have two kinds of prototyping: engineering prototypes and design prototypes. I should also clarify every time I say the word design here I mean design as in designed thinking or technically human centered design. The design program at Stanford was formed in the '60s. It's over 54 years old. It's the eldest interdisciplinary program at the university, the marriage of art, human factors and mechanical engineering. It's actually located in the ME department it's where we technically work. And that design was conceived as an innovation methodology, not as craft. Most designers in the world were trained in the craft of design. Graphic designers can draw and lay things out and industrial designers can shape things. Even ergonomic designers can shape things in a particular kind of a way.
Stanford designers do design thinking and design thinking is a methodology, it's not reliant upon craft and so it's highly transferable. So when I talk about design prototype I mean a design thinking prototype. Engineers prototype things to prove that that tame solution to that team problem they figured out does in fact work correctly. I actually have a masters in thermal sciences. I haven't used it much but there you go. I used to know how to calculate flame speed and design a turbine engine. So if I'm going to design a turbine engine, I'm General Electric, I'm going to run prototypes in a big soundproof cinder block box so when it blows up people don't get hurt and prototype one and prototype two and prototype three are different variations on the turbine blades, on this big fan that spends 100,000 RPM and we're going to make sure that it works under stress conditions and if it breaks we're going to make a modification. We're going to get that engineering done right. That's engineering prototyping to prove that the idea I had works correctly. Because I already think I know what the answer is.
A design prototype is not to prove my end solution right, it's to find out what I want to do in the first place. So an engineering prototype starts with a conclusion, a design prototype starts with a curiosity. So when we do prototyping in design like what do I want to know more about? I can either think about that or I can try it. So this is the empirical embodied experience of going out and trying things. So, for instance, when I was the first mouse product manager at Apple many, many years ago we prototyped the mouse. Now the mouse was, of course, an electro mechanical device. It had this little ball and it had Schmidt trigger LED detectors in it that were brand-new technology and those things could be engineering prototyped. But whether or not you like the way it felt in your hand or rolling this thing around on the desk and then looking at the screen over there made sense to you, we had no idea how that was going to go. We had hundreds of prototypes. One button or two? I had long and religiously ideologically animated conversations with Larry Sessler and Steve Jobs about one button or two and modelessness and double clicking. There's no answer to those questions, you have to try them. So we did lots and lots of prototypes of process or experience and lots of prototypes of shape and we ended up with the mouse and the many mice we have today. Couldn't have engineered that, we had to design that.
Example of a life prototype. So there's a woman we know, actually an example who didn't do much prototyping. We'll call her Ellen. And she was an HR executive but loved Italian food and had always dreamed of having an Italian deli. And she decided to go for it. So she went for it. So she saw this old deli that was for sale. She bought it. She quit her job. She refurbished the whole thing. She redesigned it. She laid it out. She put in a little café because she wanted to replicate this experience she had living in Tuscany briefly. And then opened to great fanfare and was wonderfully successful. Nobody's successful the first time in a restaurant. It never happens, except she hated it. She loved the idea of it. She loved developing it but not running a retail establishment. I have to hire people all the time. Most of my employees are high school kids and they quit on you regular. I have managing inventory lists. None of the reality of running an Italian deli and café was really delightful to her.
Now the prototypes that she could have iterated, she could have started with visiting a lot of different Italian cafés and talking to the owner. She could have gotten a job as a bus girl actually waiting on tables, enough to be a waiter because they sort of have to be trained, but I can clear the tables and overhear the conversations and see if people are having as good as time as they think they will in my place. I can try catering on a weekend. I could cater my friend's daughter's wedding, that's not a very big commitment. No capital is outlaid. Do I really want to cook that much? Lots of ways to try, try, try, try, try before you jump off the cliff or buy the farm and that will give you feedback about what the reality really is. What prototypes and design do are they allow you to ask interesting questions, learn things, expose your assumptions and let you sneak up on the future. So prototyping is a great way to go through your life because nobody knows the answer.
Welcome to the world of tame problems and wicked problems. Dave Evans, Stanford lecturer and former product manager at Apple, opens the door on an interesting question: not all problems are the same, so why use just one cookie-cutter method of thinking to fix them all? We’ll arrive at faster and smarter resolutions if we customize our approach.
How do problems differ? Tame problems are non-volatile challenges where the conditions remain the same, and once you solve the problem (for example engineering and building a bridge) you can transfer that knowledge to other locations and build more bridges. Arriving at the solution can be difficult, but once you get there, it’s final. File it under done and dusted.
Then there are wicked problems which are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to solve because the criteria for success are unknown and forever shifting, the knowledge is incomplete, it’s a symptom of another problem, the level of subjectivity is high, and the only way to know you have the right answer is by finding it. The cherry on top of all this wickedness is that once you solve this problem, you can’t apply the answer to something else. It’s usually a one-time only solution – like realizing how you should have lived your life only once you’re near the finish line. These are usually the most complicated human problems, for example poverty, political instability or education.
So what’s the best way to solve wicked problems? Evans is the world’s greatest ambassador for prototyping. He was the first mouse product manager at Apple, at a time when the mouse was a blank slate. There was no correct answer for how the mouse should look or function, but the Apple team had to anticipate what people in the future would want from this product. So they prototyped the living daylights out of it. The number of buttons, the size, shape, weight, texture, click sound – every variable was discussed and tested. "Get curious; ask a question; understand it; try something; learn something; do it again, do it again until you get enough of an idea that you can implement and actually solve the problem," he says.
Evans doesn’t believe prototype thinking is exclusive to retail or infrastructure, it’s highly adaptive to implement in our personal lives. This is the foundation of the incredibly popular Designing Your Life course he teaches at Stanford. When big decisions arise, rather than leaping into the unknown on a gut feeling or a guess, you can apply design thinking: ask questions, seek feedback, prototype yourself by undergoing relevant experiences and exposing your assumptions to reality. If this sounds abstract, Evans clarifies with a comprehensive example in the video above. What you should do with your life is probably the most wicked problem there is, but design thinking and prototyping allow us to make the most refined choices we can.
Dave Evans and Bill Burnett's book is Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.
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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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