John Boyd for designers

The first time I came across mil­i­tary strate­gist John Boyd’s ideas was prob­a­bly through Venkatesh Rao’s writ­ing. For exam­ple, I remem­ber enjoy­ing Be Some­body or Do Some­thing.

Boyd was clear­ly a con­trar­i­an per­son. I tend to have a soft spot for such fig­ures so I read a high­ly enter­tain­ing biog­ra­phy by Roger Coram. Get­ting more inter­est­ed in his the­o­ries I then read an appli­ca­tion of Boyd’s ideas to busi­ness by Chet Richards. Still not sat­is­fied, I decid­ed to final­ly buck­le down and read the com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of his mar­tial and sci­en­tif­ic influ­ences plus tran­scripts of all his brief­in­gs by Frans Osin­ga.

It’s been a huge­ly enjoy­able and reward­ing intel­lec­tu­al trip. I feel like Boyd has giv­en me some pret­ty sharp new tools-to-think-with. From his back­ground you might think these tools are lim­it­ed to war­fare. But in fact they can be applied much more broad­ly, to any field in which we need to make deci­sions under uncer­tain cir­cum­stances.

As we go about our dai­ly lives we are actu­al­ly always deal­ing with this dynam­ic. But the stakes are usu­al­ly low, so we most­ly don’t real­ly care about hav­ing a thor­ough under­stand­ing of how to do what we want to do. In war­fare the stakes are obvi­ous­ly unusu­al­ly high, so it makes sense for some of the most artic­u­late think­ing on the sub­ject to emerge from it.

As a design­er I have always been inter­est­ed in how my pro­fes­sion makes deci­sions. Design­ers usu­al­ly deal with high lev­els of uncer­tain­ty too. Although lives are rarely at stake, the con­tin­ued via­bil­i­ty of busi­ness­es and qual­i­ty of peo­ples lives usu­al­ly are, at least in some way. Fur­ther­more, there is always a leap of faith involved with any design deci­sion. When we sug­gest a path for­ward with our sketch­es and pro­to­types, and we choose to pro­ceed to devel­op­ment, we can nev­er be entire­ly sure if our intend­ed out­comes will pan out as we had hoped.

This uncer­tain­ty has always been present in any design act, but an argu­ment could be made that tech­nol­o­gy has increased the amount of uncer­tain­ty in our world.

The way I see it, the meth­ods of user cen­tred design, inter­ac­tion design, user expe­ri­ence, etc are all attempts to “deal with” uncer­tain­ty in var­i­ous ways. The same can be said for the tech­niques of agile soft­ware devel­op­ment.

These meth­ods can be divid­ed into rough­ly two cat­e­gories, which more or less cor­re­spond to the upper two quad­rants of this two-by-two by Venkatesh. Bor­row­ing the diagram’s labels, one is called Spore. It is risk-averse and focus­es on sus­tain­abil­i­ty. The oth­er is called Hydra and it is risk-savvy and about anti-fragili­ty. Spore tries to lim­it the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of unex­pect­ed events, and Hydra tries to max­imise their pos­i­tive con­se­quences.

An exam­ple of a Spore-like design move would be to insist on thor­ough user research at the start of a project. We expend sig­nif­i­cant resources to dimin­ish the amount of unknowns about our tar­get audi­ence. An exam­ple of a Hydra-like design move is the kind of playtest­ing employed by many game design­ers. We leave open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of sur­pris­ing acts from our tar­get audi­ence and hope to sub­se­quent­ly use those as the basis for new design direc­tions.

It is inter­est­ing to note that these upper two quad­rants are strate­gies for deal­ing with uncer­tain­ty based on syn­the­sis. The oth­er two rely on analy­sis. We typ­i­cal­ly asso­ciate syn­the­sis with cre­ativ­i­ty and by exten­sion with design. But as Boyd fre­quent­ly points out, inven­tion requires both analy­sis and syn­the­sis, which he liked to call destruc­tion and cre­ation. When I reflect on my own way of work­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the ear­ly stages of a project, the so-called fuzzy front end, I too rely on a cycle of destruc­tion and cre­ation to make progress.

I do not see one of the two approach­es, Spore or Hydra, as inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or. But my per­son­al pref­er­ence is most def­i­nite­ly the Hydra approach. I think this is because a risk-savvy stance is most help­ful when try­ing to invent new things, and when try­ing to design for play and play­ful­ness.

The main thing I learned from Boyd for my own design prac­tice is to be aware of uncer­tain­ty in the first place, and to know how to deal with it in an agile way. You might not be will­ing to do all the read­ing I did, but I would rec­om­mend to at least peruse the one long-form essay Boyd wrote, titled Destruc­tion and Cre­ation (PDF), about how to be cre­ative and deci­sive in the face of uncer­tain­ty.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.