Design and Choice

The design of things is usually not a conscious focus for most people. We may say things like: “Why didn’t they put that link over here”, or “Why does the windshield wiper only have two settings”. Whether physical or digital, design has an enormous, often stealth-like impact on what we do with products.
Making too many choices for end-users is poor design. Designers must obviously make some choices to simplify a software platform, vehicle, computer, or phone. Apple, for example, in the development of their new iPhone, made many choices – the most significant being to eliminate physical phone keys and instead rely on software to do the work of formerly physical objects. The choices made during the design process obviously impacts everything that follows.
Instead of reducing opportunities, design should open possibilities for individuals. Digital Rights Management, copyright law, identity management, intellectual property, and even patents, serve to walk a line between what the developer or originator of a resource would permit us to do (and in the process, conceivably protect their investment in a resource), and what we as consumers or end-users of a product or resource would like to do.
But we design more than software and physical items. We design media. We design spaces and structures. Consider the music and movie industry. Music, until only a few years ago, was designed to be sold in 10 – 12 songs per album. Other than with the release of select singles, we had an “all” or “nothing” choice with music. Napster changed that. iTunes made it legal by the music industry’s definition (but more restrictive for end users than a truly open system).
Now we are hearing of an interest “skinning’ feature in newer technologies like HD DVD where viewers can conceivably change the color of a car in a video…and potentially even add their image over the face of a character in the movie. Individuals can watch clips on YouTube when they want, rather than when the network schedules. How we experience news is similar – instead of submitting to an editor’s perspective, we are able to hear accounts first hand. Perhaps the greatest change in society over the last five years has been the shift of choice from the needs of the institution to choice in the hands of the end user.
Choice obviously has many facets. On one level, choice might be about what color we would like a piece of clothing. On another level, choice might be about how we would actually like the clothing to look (i.e. to customize the physical design, not only the color). Too much choice can also be paralytic. When we go into a grocery store and see too many kinds of toothpaste, we often revert to what we are most familiar with (I read a study on this, the link doesn’t come to mind now). Similarly, design decisions with software determine whether we can only change the color of a screen or background, or whether we can extend the software for additional functionality. Open standards (or software) and APIs enable mashups and re-creations beyond what initial designers had planned. The end-user, not the designer alone, determines what can be done.
Choice is quite inconsequential for most people – like how the lid of a medication bottle (except for people with arthritis). The more substantial the choice, however, the more important it is that it rests in the hands of everyone. While I’m likely not to get too riled up (just irritated) when the wiper on my car doesn’t function as I would like it to, certain choices should be ALWAYS in the hands of individuals. Democracy is one example. Learning is another. And that brings me to the point of this short article.
Too much of our learning is being designed as if the choices of the learners didn’t matter. We design LMS’ to lock learners into our format, our model. When the learners leave our institution, we eliminate their choice of further access to learning materials. When a learner would like to demonstrate competence in a certain way (for assessment purposes), we instead require a 2000 word essay. With education, the design of learning should follow a similar model as with any other design process: namely to balance the needs and intent of the designer with the end user. In terms of educational design, the choice has traditionally rested with the institution.
The draw of blogs, wikis, podcasting, video logging, social bookmarking, and other social tools for educators arises from direct observation of what happens when learners are given choice. It’s enormously motivating to watch learners learn through dialogue – forming connections with learners and experts beyond the walls of a classroom (or LMS)…seeing passion replace routine, engagement replace passivity.
Ideally, our design should permit the greatest possible diversity (even when we intend to move learners toward a particular outcome). Essentially, as educators, we design the ecology in which learning happens. Learners create the network that expresses personal interest, and the patterns that project personal meaning and sensemaking.
I’ve stated previously that our challenge with learning (and business, and democracy, and roughly everything else in society) is “how to create clear aims through decentralized and distributed means”. Our learning design should allow learners to “speak themselves into the process”…i.e. to form connections and explore areas of personal interest. This must, in formal education, be balanced with curricular needs. For example, programs of applied learning often have their curriculum needs defined by an advisory board.
Personal choice and freedom for exploration must exist in balance with the needs of a school, program, society, and industry. Control needs to be balanced between all participants. Education is holistic. Many participants comprise the whole. With purely informal learning, the learner is the only “stakeholder”. As process of learning is enlarged – into the public sphere or into corporate environments – additional stakeholders are added. Educating a child for example, involves more than just the child (I’m bypassing the obvious discussion of “do we actually educate” or do we only create the context in which people learn). Families, communities, and societies are active participants in enabling (and benefiting from) learning.

3 Responses to “Design and Choice”

  1. Stephi says:

    I dont feel there is any harm in giving choices.If you have more choices, different people can use them according to their convenience.Like you talked about changing the colour of the car according to your choice or putting your image in the visual, if that is more entertaining…Y not give a choice.

  2. George-
    I am also following the discussion we are having at SCoPE, and had two thoughts to share about this:
    1. I stopped when I read your comment, as it made me wonder about how educators utilize technologies:
    >>>The draw of blogs, wikis, podcasting, video logging, social bookmarking, and other social tools for educators arises from direct observation of what happens when learners are given choice. It’s enormously motivating to watch learners learn through dialogue – forming connections with learners and experts beyond the walls of a classroom (or LMS)…seeing passion replace routine, engagement replace passivity.<
    I can’t help but wonder if an educator has this draw because of seeing his or her students use these, as opposed to having these technologies be useful in his or her own education. As an educator myself, I often introduce new ideas that first reverberated in my own life. I am not sure how many tools I use with my students that I have not personally found useful, in some capacity and to some level, first.
    2. As a visual learner, I noticed that your posts are rather text heavy, without many images or formatting to engage visual learners. I noticed this before I typed response #1 above, and now I am wondering how connected these seemingly different replies of mine are.
    This is wonderful you are offering this forum to wade through these issues. Isn’t the Net amazing?

  3. Ann MacCann says:

    I am finding this discussion fascinating. The Centre for Learning Innovation where I work in Sydney Australia has a variety of differing audiences to design for; some at very high levels appreciate a wealth of choice and are capable of navigating a less-structured environment while the people with literacy issues have difficulty with anything that is text heavy and unstructured – they can only navigate heavily pictorial content and require more structure. It’s all good!