Design Solutions to Puzzles and Mysteries

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker a few weeks ago sort of defending Enron. It’s an interesting article and I highly recommend it. One of theme of it that I think is relevant to designers is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery.

Gladwell writes,

Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.

Usability experts tend to see everything as a puzzle. The reason users don’t click the button is because it is in the wrong place! Puzzle solved. Designers see everything as a mystery. Users aren’t clicking the button is either because the whole product isn’t serving their needs! We need to start over and make it more elegant. Now, obviously, I’m stereotyping for effect here, but I like how this puzzle-mystery model works. One of the things experienced designers are pretty good at is determining on any given project what the puzzles are and what the mysteries are. Does the button need to simply be bigger, or is the whole application a mess? This is where, like in so many other places during a project, professional judgment comes into play.

When can you determine if a problem is a puzzle or mystery? Stakeholder interviews and user research are certainly places to start. Is there a piece of information you need to make a correct decision, or is the problem (as is often the case in our line of work) too much information without enough analysis? Gladwell again:

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

This is why, in nearly every case, every solution to design problems is an incomplete one. There is always something that could be improved upon, or we simply can’t address the whole problem because it’s too big or too complex. We only have to see it through.

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