Sometimes, all it takes is one stray thought.

Modes of Thinking

Posted on April 12th, by Brad in Blog. No Comments

This is going to be a long post, so before we get too deep I want to thank my partner in crime on this concept Andrea Mignolo (http://pnts (@pnts (https://twitter and the smart people from twitter Steve Baty (http://www NULL.meldstudios (@docbaty (https://twitter, Henken Bean (http://www NULL.henkenbean (@henken (https://twitter, Kevin Hoffman (http://www NULL.kevinmhoffman (@kevinmhoffman (https://twitter, Christopher Monnier (http://www NULL.chrismonnier (@chrismonnier (https://twitter and Will Sansbury (http://willsansbury (@willsansbury (https://twitter for sharing their thoughts and opinions. In this post we (Andrea and I) want to explore not only where divergent and convergent modes of thinking belong in a design process, but also how a person’s natural mode of thinking impacts how they might identify within the user experience community. A quick disclaimer: This posts does run the very real risk of over simplifying certain ideas and concepts. If this occurs, please go after those weak points. Your critique and comments only progress the conversation and will drive us to flesh this out more (if it deserves it!).

There are two modes of thinking in a design process: divergent (http://en NULL.wikipedia, where you explore, learn and experiment; and convergent (http://en NULL.wikipedia, where you analyze, filter and decide. Both of these modes of thinking are critical to the various methods and activities that make up the design process. Something that got us (Andrea and I) thinking is how these modes of thinking align with the practice of information architecture and interaction design. Do practitioners align themselves with one practice over the other because they are more naturally convergent or divergent thinkers? This isn’t to say that the two modes of thinking don’t exist in either practice, they definitely do! But, is one more predominant than the other? These questions lead to the following tweet (https://twitter Now, some quick definitions so we don’t all get sucked into the trap of fighting over semantics – for the purpose of this tweet I’m defining research and design as the following. Research – The act of exploring a problem space to better understand what is happening, what could happen, and more importantly, what shouldn’t happen.

Design – The act of defining a solution (not THE solution) that is associated with a defined problem space.

The terms research and design are both much larger than this, but due to the limitations of the written language (and my vocabulary), I think it works for the remainder of this discussion.

How Divergent and Convergent Thinking Get Applied

In the practices of information architecture and interaction design, divergent and convergent thinking occur at different phases of the project. Information architects need to take time to research the existing state of data, structure, organization and content models present in the problem space. Following this act of understanding, information architects can then design new data structures, taxonomies, navigation models and contextual spaces for content consumption. Interaction designers need to research by sketching, prototyping and coding up new methods of behavior, interaction and user interface components. Eventually though, interaction designers need to design their way down to a single concept and interaction model to push onto the next phases of design and development.

This back and forth dance of divergent and convergent thinking is necessary for a well thought out solution to emerge, ultimately facilitating a good user experience. Both roles require the time and freedom to go back and forth so enough time is spent researching the problem, and then using that understanding to design, or iterate on, a solution. One thing to note: I’m referring to information architect and interaction designer as two separate roles, however the same person can (and often does) fill both roles at different phases of a project.

Are Information Architects Convergers? Interaction Designers Divergers?

Speaking personally, my technical skills align to being an interaction designer, but my personality and thought process is that of an information architect. Another confession of mine is that convergent thinking feels way more natural to me than divergent. Over the years, I’ve learned tricks and techniques that allow me to operate in a divergent way, but falling into convergent thinking is much easier for me. I began to wonder if the reason why I align myself with information architecture more than interaction design, in the sense of community and personality, is because I’m a convergent thinker?

With this question in mind, I began to look at my friends and peers in the UX community, and surprisingly I was easily able to sort them into being more of convergent or divergent thinkers. The really interesting thing about this sort was the roles in which people identify with. The convergers tended to be information architects and the divergers were interaction designers. This epiphany floored me a bit, and it also helped me understand why they sometimes clash when discussing the underlying philosophy of user experience and design. It’s a bit like mixing oil and water when baking; the two liquids don’t get along but are vital to the cake making process.

Returning to Research and Design

Information architects will say they design when they are architecting, and interaction designers will say they research when they are designing. When these statements are being said, I think what’s really being described is shifting into a divergent mode of thinking or a convergent mode of thinking. Both roles research the problem they are trying to solve and go off to explore the data or possibilities that are open to them. At some point though, each role has to stop exploring and get to the task at hand and design something. This creation could result in a fancy diagram architecting out how different users would traverse a site’s new organization or a new interactive user interface component that changes the way users interact with a digital interface.

What now????

I don’t know about you, but for me all of this helps me understand the people I love to work with and learn from, both on the internet and at conferences. The above theory is the result of several thought experiments and isn’t really based on any formal research or data. However, it has me interested in the structure of design teams (formally and organically) and how people self-identify professionally.

Recommended Reading from The Twitters

  • Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (http://www

  • How to Make Collaboration Work (http://www

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