Inflection Point: Wolfram Alpha on Design Thinking


According to Wikipedia, an inflection point can be defined as follows:

“In differential calculus, an inflection pointpoint of inflection, or inflection (inflexion) is a point on a curve at which the curvature or concavity changes sign. The curve changes from being concave upwards (positive curvature) to concave downwards (negative curvature), or vice versa. If one imagines driving a vehicle along a winding road, inflection is the point at which the steering-wheel is momentarily “straight” when being turned from left to right or vice versa.”

The concept of inflection points was recently used by someone near and dear to me who has a background in mathematics (my favourite subject growing up) to describe new ideas and intellectual sparks that may enlighten or perhaps even change one’s frame of mind. And so here in the blog, I hope to describe inflection points in design and health promotion that I find thought provoking and worth sharing.

The first inflection point I’d like to share concerns the image above — it describes a curious moment I had the other day about “design thinking”. I was thinking about the various ways to define “design thinking” and decided to see what the computational wizard known as Wolfram Alpha had to say about it. For a bot that can tell you the meaning of life (yes, it really does, just ask.) I was curious to see what answer(s) my question would generate and, lo and behold, I got an answer…but one I didn’t quite expect. Seemingly puzzled by my query, Wolfram Alpha responded: “I am capable of universal computation; that I can say“.

This answer absolutely intrigued me.

Design thinking has been a difficult concept for me to define with a lot of certainty or clarity. There are some definitions that tend to stick with me more than others, but I still find it difficult to even pinpoint ‘design thinking’ as a concept, process, method, and/or stance. Seems to be this way for Wolfram Alpha too, perhaps? Well, beyond the fuzziness and confusion, I still got an answer. Wolfram Alpha’s response was about what Wolfram Alpha is and what it does. This got me thinking.

To me design thinking can be pretty murky at times but the way we interpret and put design thinking into practice starts with who I/You/We are as the “designer”. So even when things are fuzzy or abstract, I think it is easier to navigate, understand, learn, and adapt to new and different concepts and contexts if you’re aware of, open, and honest about your own sense of self. I have found that too often designers exclude themselves (intentionally or unintentionally) from the design process. Allow me to explain…

Designers create for users. Oftentimes, design process requires users to reveal themselves to the designer so that their needs can be identified and addressed through design. Be it through interviews, observation, mapping, ethnographic practice, etc., there are a number of ways data about the user are collected so that the designer can make sense of this information, synthesize it, and design a solution. My post on information flow illustrates what I see as the highly uni-directional nature of information flow from people/users to the designer (see the left hand side of this image) that often occurs throughout most design processes. Consequently, it seems then that designers take on a tremendous responsibility: They gather intimate information about people and possess great power in being able to create, modify, and implement solutions and influence decision-making processes that affect people’s health and livelihood.

Because there is a rather large ‘burden’ of responsibility placed on the designer, to me it seems reasonable for users to question/understand what the designer’s previous design work looks like, what their values are, the life experiences that shape their design process, and the multiple facets of their identity that make them who they are. Users have to reveal a lot of themselves — directly and indirectly — in order to create good design…so why not the designer as well?

In the work I have done as a health promoter, for example, it’s important for me to be aware of the layers of my social identity: I’m a woman, a woman of colour, heterosexual, an academic, a health promoter, young adult, and Chinese, to name a few. I bring these layers up as examples of important pieces of me that make me who I am and offer me different lenses through which I approach my work, relationships, and design. I’m not saying that I have to reveal all of my personal and professional details to people that I work with, but that I think it is important for others to have an idea of where I am coming from as I assume these factors influence and maybe even manifest themselves through the designs/work I create. I think being reflective about who I am, my social position, my learnings and lived experiences, social identities, and values and believes makes me a better health promoter and designer, and is necessary prep work I need to do before taking on the responsibility of working for or with others. I think that being aware, reflective and more transparent about my approaches, influence and position also enables me to grow personally and professionally and helps align project objectives, purpose, guiding principles and underlying values. Generally, it seems that understanding me first puts me in a better position to help others. This is what health promotion has taught me at least.

So perhaps when all else is fuzzy or lacking coherence it is helpful to come back to what you know best so you can guide your thinking and actions: you. Maybe good design comes into fruition when designer and users take time to pause and reflect and reveal themselves to each other in an act of reciprocity. What do you think?

Thanks for the thought-provoking answer, Wolfram Alpha.


NOTE: I’m not sure if this was a very coherent post, but I’m curious and open to any feedback. Please note, much of this commentary is in response to what I have observed within the design world and acknowledge that all designers are different and do not fit into some of the generalizations I have made above.