Saturday, June 4, 2011

The System Designers Role

The System Designer is the organizer of time, material and space for audiences to experience. The 9/11 memorial was an example of this in the organization of circulation, the bronze plaques, the large pools and trees surrounding the area. It will be an experience that varies for visitors but there is an attempt to encourage feelings and thoughts that are reverent, mournful, and reflective. These are managed by they system designer and the design choices that are made and carried through in all the aspects of the environment. The formality of the space in the way it is ordered, the symbolic references to the fallen buildings and their footprint, and the natural elements all add to the experience that says, "this is a memorial". We might even consider the fountain as a de-facto memorial trigger.

Systems may be large scale projects like the memorial or they can be small but analyzing the success of a systems design is based on the way that elements within the design interact, inform, and add to teh experience. I am reminded of a very simple stir stick I found at a local coffee shop in Athens, Greece. It was a beautiful, slender, clear plastic paddle with an oval hole at the end to allow the coffee to swirl through it as coffee, cream, and sugar co-mingle. It is the choice of a single coffee shop owner to select this stir stick and adds to the overall experience at his store. In a way the coffee shop owner is a system designer considering the total experience from coffee to chairs, from newspaper ads to stir sticks. It is not every business owner who can bring together all of the aspects that give customers some impression of the coffee shop nor is it something that they should do but they should know it is important. 

The advertising guru Claude Hopkins states that, "if you don't understand the common man and what they want you will never sell them anything". The "common man" Hopkins refers to is the customer of the coffee shop owner. This may seem obvious but all to often designers focus on their client rather than the customers of their clients. Naturally, the person holding the money gets the most attention but Hopkins and avid follower David Ogilvy agree that pleasing the customer is the main concern. The best way to do that is testing designs with sample users before it is released. A system designers will have a difficult time doing this given because it is precisely the interaction between all of the designed components that make the system work.  It is the nature of the connections between designed artifacts and the context in which they are used influence the artifact itself and ultimate the user within the system. This can only be tested and observed once the system is in place. How can accurate testing be achieved at early stages of the design process? The potential for modularity may be a consideration but it is the value of the custom design of systems that makes it interesting and the salable point. If we prefabricate subsystems and offer them as plug-and-play components we loose the overall connection to the experience. An approach that uses visualization tools through 3D models offers many benefits but little information about these tools and their influence on the users experience has been published. The benefits to visualizing are well known but that is useful to the designer to predict scale, orientation, relationships of objects and so on, but what influence have they had on potential users or the customers of our clients to predict experiences that are generally the same?

Here are a few more questions to consider:
How does the virtual 3D environment measure up to the actual experience?
What were the expected emotional, cognitive, social, or political responses to the design, and did the system encourage, handle, deflect, discourage or change over time?
How does the user interact with the virtual environment?
How can you integrate prototypes that are easily made physically with environment prototypes that need to be virtual?