Rapid Expert Design (R.E.D.)
Discussions of approaches and methodologies of design are among our
field's most perennial and cherished. In the past few years we've
seen a number of attempts to create a taxonomy of approaches to and
philosophies of interaction design. I've had some interesting and in-
depth discussions with Dan Saffer regarding the category he defined in
his book as "genius design" and here I'll lay out my reasoning for why
a) labels matter a great deal, and b) why this term is particularly
ill-suited and counter-productive for the approach it attempts to label.
First, the idea of "framing" must be raised. Framing refers to a
schema of interpretation, and is embodied in a collection of
stereotypes that then become the basis for how the framed issue or
subject is understood and responded or reacted to. Linguist George
Lakoff has written a great deal on the social theory concept of
framing and how it's affected our national political discourse. I
suggest that that people not already familiar with framing begin by
reading up on it, as my primary objection to the term "genius design"
is one of objectionable framing which I reject.
I use instead the term, "Rapid Expert Design" or R.E.D. It is a
method I've learned, first through substantial side-by-side
apprenticeships with older, more experienced designers beginning
twenty-five years ago, and one that I continue share with my
consulting network and work colleagues and have myself passed on to
younger designers working with me or as part of our teams.
I'll begin by addressing the framing problems resulting from the term
"genius design.” Next I'll address some of the key differences
inherent in why I believe some people have less problems with the term
and conclude with why I and others believe Rapid Expert Design better
describes the approach we use.
I see the primary problem with the term, "Genius Design" is that it's
impossible to believe that it's an approach that many people would
aspire to. In other words, it's already *at least* something that one
would perhaps *resort* to if no other method were available. This is
an important and negative framing right at the start.
Secondary framing problems of the label "genius design" are:
1) Young designers may simply think, "Well, hey, I'm not a genius, or
don't/won't consider myself to be one, so I guess this approach isn't
2) Even experienced designers are likely to cringe at the term, and
would be loathe to self-label their philosophy and practice as "genius
design." It is not an aspirational term, and seems unlikely that it
ever could be.
Now I agree with a great deal of what Dan Saffer has to say about what
he characterizes (I make this distinction of his characterization of
the approach) as "genius design." He acknowledges that much design,
and much successful design, is done this way. He says that much of
his work is done this way, and he alludes to the realities of design
practice that all designers face. In *my reading* however, and I'm
willing to reconsider if he objects, I detect an air of this approach
being more of a fallback and unfortunate reality, rather than a core
philosophy and approach that can be studied, practiced, and
continually improved throughout a designer's career. The section of
his book on "genius design" is the last and shortest of all the
philosophies/approaches he describes, and though he mentions the Apple
iPod, there's really very little about this approach explored in any
I believe that the framing of Rapid Expert Design as "genius design"
has led directly to the kind of reactions to the term we've seen here
on the IxDA list. Namely it's an approach asking to be ridiculed,
dismissed, or attacked.
Rapid Expert Design is not a fallback approach or philosophy for me,
nor my long-time team and network of collaborators. Nor is it ego-
driven. I actually find the "ego-driven" label gambit to be an even
more problematic and pejorative framing of what R.E.D. really
represents. Some respondents in threads have claimed that the term
"ego-driven" led to defensiveness on the parts of some. I believe
that they mistook legitimate criticism of the semantics and framing
for defensiveness. No designer who's practicing intensive and
successful Rapid Expert Design is doing it to feed an ego. To call it
ego-driven would be like comparing a Special Forces soldier to one in
the regular infantry and claiming the Special Forces soldier was
simply more ego-driven. You can see it's not a very effective way,
nor the most accurate way to describe the actual differences or need
for both. And this difference between Special Forces and regular
infantry is one of many ways to see how R.E.D. compares to other
approaches to design.
Rapid Expert Design is a valid and largely missing and under-examined
approach to interactive product development (as well as re-
development, improvement, turnarounds, etc.), and this is why how it’s
framed is crucial to an adequate understanding of it.
Why is Rapid Expert Design needed?
It's needed because we live in a world with a nearly uncountable
number of undesigned and unaddressed user interface and functional
problems and inadequacies. There are also many companies that have
run products and services through many incremental, feature-loading
stages to the point of inefficiencies, inadequacies, or simple
obsolescence and yet have no effective means to move quickly to a new,
improved model or generation. I often describe this as normal hive
activities and the need for periodic swarming to establish a new
hive. Most corporations have a great deal of departmental and
political difficulty re-inventing themselves. Many languish or perish
for the inability to make this leap.
Rapid Expert Designers can be effectively employed to help catalyze
and effect such a new generation development. This can be done as a
hothouse or skunkworks and handed off (the fastest way), or it can
take the form of a team coming in a working with inside groups. The
latter can also be effective, but it often requires a much larger
incoming consulting group, is often much more expensive, can take
significantly longer, and can have more complicated political
ramifications. There are simply some situations where too many cooks
in the kitchen really can spoil the broth. This is definitely the
case with a corporation that needs to develop an OS-level revolution
in one to two years time, or a small corporation that needs to produce
a complex product in less than a year. It requires generalist experts
that can analyze the technology, known needs, and production
capabilities within a particular calendar timeframe and then apply and
balance a wide range of skills and previous experiences and knowledge
to produce a successful outcome.
Development efforts that require a lot of up-front research and
process-oriented approaches can be successful, though they can also
eat up a lot of resources and time and many companies can ill-afford
either. Very few interactive products and designs we live/suffer with
today stem from singular or whole visions and architectural guidance.
They are, instead, the result of big corporate hierarchical
organizations, highly compromised consensus necessities, rearview
mirror-driven sensibilities, timid incrementalism, disempowered
designer problems, and a whole host of other threats and obstacles.
Today's most inspired and beloved products, systems, and services
either require enormous and expensive development regimes or are the
result of very well crystallized vision and whole integration across
many interrelated aspects by small expert groups.
How can Rapid Expert Design be learned?
This is where the catch is, and why it's so important to start with an
acknowledgement of the validity of the approach and realization of how
Rapid Expert Designers are trained and exercised. The only way to
become proficient at the R.E.D. approach is through apprenticing and
gradually using the approach on projects of increasing scale and
complexity. A young designer that ambitiously bites off an entire
consumer product may indeed fail. However, it's important that they
begin learning (along with more experienced designers) how to approach
things in this manner, in smaller steps, so that they can eventually
become more proficient at R.E.D.
Much as Mortimer Adler described the three phases of education: 1)
Rote (can be taught to many simultaneously) 2) Coaching (which is
optimized at no more than 7 students per coach to allows them to put
what was learned by rote into dynamic practice) and 3) Synthesis
(where the student then begins to branch out and synthesize new skills
and solutions. The bottleneck is the Coaching phase, in that it must
be done in a close side-by-side fashion. This is why apprenticeship
and side-by-side working and transmittal of dynamic judgment and
knowledge are so important. Rapid Expert Design cannot be learned
from a book, nor is it effectively learned in a corporate management
But most importantly, R.E.D. needs to be understood and its documented
case studies examined in order to understand it more fully. It can be
used successfully on a much wider scale than it has been. I would
suggest that most designers practicing R.E.D. spend the overwhelming
majority of their careers going from one project to the next, picking
up experience and taking on challenges, and don't spend that much time
trying to formalize their approaches. I know that this is the case
with myself and my colleagues. We don't believe we can effectively
collapse what we do dynamically into a book. We do, however,
extensively document our projects. So for those of you out there that
wish to study a number of successful R.E.D. projects and outcomes in
great and necessary depth, the evidence of Rapid Expert Design's
legitimacy and repeated success is there and will continue to grow.
Ultimately all philosophies, methodologies, and practitioners will be
judged by the resulting work, its breadth and diversity, and its
success with all stakeholders. And just to be abundantly clear, all
successful interaction design is user-centered. Even that created
through the Rapid Expert Design philosophy and approach.