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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Design of Things

This website. Blog posts. Magic shows. Cats. eBay. The iPad. Your body. My body. The Boston Red Sox. What do all of these things have in common? Believe it or not, these are not all completely random; they can all be categorized together when defined as a system. Systems surround us. We interact with them, create them, destroy them, and rebuild them every single day. What is a system? A system is a set of interacting or interdependent entities that form an integrated whole. In plain English, a system is made up of parts that individually perform distinct functions but together create a new, different function. For instance, your body has a liver, a heart, a stomach, veins, arteries, etc. Each of these individually can filter, pump, digest, direct, restrict, and so forth. Combine the parts and we have MacGyver, Natalie Portman, Keanu Reeves, Einstein, human beings!

So, now that you have an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s focus on designing systems. It is truly incredible to think about designing systems when you consider all the possible pieces that can exist in a system. In fact, it can be overwhelming, which is why it is vitally important to define the boundaries of your system and the purpose you want it to achieve. The longer you spend at the outset of your design the better off you will be when putting all the pieces together. Clear boundaries and purpose will allow the designer to decide what is critical to the system and what can be left out, which will save time and effort. Take a look at how quickly we can get lost if we don’t clearly define our system.

Imagine that the purpose of our system is to get a result of 4. Easy, right? 2 + 2 will give us 4, but look at some other possibilities:

100 – 96 = 4

16/4 = 4

4 + 0 = 4

(((0*3,000) + 34)/2) + 3 – 16 = 4

You can see that the possibilities to obtain 4 are practically endless (and we haven’t even left basic arithmetic). Now, let’s see what happens if we define the boundaries and our purpose a little more precisely. We do this by adding constraints to the design. Why not say that our purpose is to obtain 4 using only addition of two integers greater than 0 and less than 4? Now our possibilities are much more limited.

1 + 3 = 4

2 + 2 = 4

3 + 1 = 4

Three possibilities. We went from endless possibilities to 3 by adding two constraints – only adding two integers and integers greater than 0 and less than 4.

I can write about all the formal steps of creating and manipulating systems forever. I will leave you, for now, with just this basic introduction to this multi-faceted discipline. Look around you over the next few days and think about the design of the things that you see and interact with. Did the designer do a good job? Did they consider all the variables? Did the system meet its intended purpose? What are some systems that could use improvement? I guarantee you’ll run across a few that will leave you scratching your head, but maybe you’ll think again. Maybe the initial design didn’t intend for the system to be used the way you wish it did. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, purpose is in the design of the engineer, and function is in the mind of the user.

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