Creativity and Rationale book – reflections

The third major book in the field of Design Rationale has just been published.  From my perspective, this book’s publication gives me pause for thought, as it includes a chapter from one of my PhD students, when the first book 16 years ago had a chapter from my own PhD. This feels something of a milestone as I look back over the journey I’ve been on, and the debt that I owe to people like Jack Carroll, my PhD supervisors Nick Hammond and Allan MacLean, and my close collaborators Jeff Conklin, Al Selvin and Maarten Sierhuis.

But first, the new book:

Creativity and Rationale: Enhancing Human Experience by Design, edited by Jack Carroll…

  • “Explores whether and how creativity and rationale can have mutually facilitative interactions
  • State of the art volume developed from the NSF Workshop ‘Creativity and Rationale in Software Design’
  • Includes contributions from leading experts in several software design research communities

Creativity and rationale comprise an essential tension in design. They are two sides of the coin; contrary, complementary, but perhaps also interdependent. Designs always serve purposes. They always have an internal logic. They can be queried, explained, and evaluated. These characteristics are what design rationale is about. But at the same time designs always provoke experiences and insights. They open up possibilities, raise questions, and engage human sense making. Design is always about creativity.”

Design Rationale was the first field in which I engaged as an HCI/Hypertext researcher, doing my PhD 1989-91 at University of York (under Nick Hammond) sponsored by Rank Xerox Cambridge EuroPARC (under Allan MacLean), working on the cognitive affordances of the QOC Questions-Options-Criteria representational scheme for argumentation-based design rationale. EuroPARC as it was in those days, was the first satellite lab set up to PARC, led by Tom Moran. With Tom, Jack Carroll was of course already a leading HCI figure, and together they led the first Design Rationale workshop at CHI’90 (also my first CHI, where I got to the Doctoral Consortium!), which became the 1991 HCI journal special issue, and then the first milestone book in 1996, Design Rationale Concepts, Techniques, and Use. I was very proud to have a chapter in that book from my PhD’s empirical studies, which was conducted very much in the psychology tradition of a cognitive task analysis of video from lab-based studies.

The Design Rationale meme spread, and the next period saw an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with Jeff Conklin, Al Selvin and Maarten Sierhuis, in which we combined my interests around visual hypermedia, the power of modelling from Maarten’s work, and Jeff and Al’s interests in the skills needed to use this well in the heat of real organizational sensemaking. Our vehicle for testing our ideas was a software tool called Compendium. We reflected on the lessons we were learning from 15 years work in a chapter in the second major DR book in 2006, which came from the software engineering community: Rationale Management in Software Engineering.

With my move to the Open University, I began to broaden the concepts and technologies from Design Rationale to other forms of intellectual work, which saw impacts in the broader notions of Visualizing Argumentation, Knowledge Cartography, Scholarly Publishing, and Learning Technology, and with the emergence of the social/semantic web, is highly relevant to Computational Argumentation, CSCW/Collective Intelligence, and Evidence-based Policy. Most recently, we are using structured, online deliberation platforms – which include IBIS – to inform the kinds of analytics that can give insight into learning and sensemaking processes online.

But running like a thread throughout there has always been a very thorny adoption challenge to confront, which was at the core of my PhD, all my work since, and which has been explored by many others from different angles. In brief, it takes intellectual effort to record rationale, or to structure ideas as arguments, and even more to do so in a structured format, so that effort has to repay itself immediately or very soon, to those engaged in deliberation (it can’t be delayed gratification which will reap benefits for unknown people at an unknown future moment). This requires a detailed understanding of how symbolic representations shape cognitive and group dynamics. The chapter in the new book (journal version) comes from Al Selvin’s PhD, based on close video analysis of novices and experts using Compendium, which develops a new language for talking about practice with such tools. This seeks to describe the capacities and dispositions that a practitioner (using any representational tool) needs to support real-time collective sensemaking. When I look back to the chapter I wrote from my own 1991 PhD, this represents a quantum leap in how we think about “usability” and “skill” in HCI — progress indeed.

In my mind, this is one of the new literacies for the 21st Century that we need to teach, starting with our young people. And my thanks to all who have helped me on this journey so far.

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