All of Sun Labs went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk today to ride rollercoasters, play arcade games, and generally have a good time. It reminded me of one of my favorite metaphors for the process of design: it's a game that appears often in these game arcades in different forms and with different names. The one at the Boardwalk is called Whack-a-Mole. There's a square box with a grid of large holes on the top. Usually three holes by three holes. There's a mechanism to cause something (in this case, a fake fur Mole) to pop out of one of the holes. You play the game by taking a bat and trying to whack (hit) the mole on the head. But the mole always pops back down into his hole and pops up somewhere else. So you take the bat and try to whack the mole on the head in it's new place. But of course, he pops back into the box and pops up somewhere else. No matter what you do, the mole always pops up somewhere else. You win if you can get the mole to stay in the box and not pop up. Damn near impossible.

Design is like that. Designs always have problems. So you go work on that problem. But often what you do to solve that problem causes new problems to pop up somewhere else. All too often people will come to me and say "I've solved the problem". I'll look at it and essentially say "yes, but no: what you've really done is moved the problem. Design is about compromise. You rarely get to eliminate all problems: you just get to decide which problems you're willing to work with.

One place where this shows up as a real point of friction is with folks fresh out of school. Throughout shool you mostly work on problems concocted by instructors for some didactic purpose. They have a solution in mind. You know that the solution exists. The problem is usually constructed so that the solution is clean (this most often shows up in high shool mathematics). But the real world isn't that way. Problems are messy. There often isn't a perfect solution that solves all the problems. Major frustration and disillusion ensues.

Get over it. Seek Balance

June 17, 2005