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.