Anti-Design: An Activity

When we ask someone to design something, we usually focus on the good. If you ask someone to build a notification service, it is expected to be a good one. But what about asking people to design a bad one?

Asking participants to develop a poor design is what we do in our Software Design and Development Clinics. We call it “Anti-Design.”

Intentionally creating something terrible is an exciting challenge. If you have spent a while designing software, you have specific patterns you have likely fallen into – ways you do things to ensure success. When asked to design a bad solution, you almost have to return to first principles and ask yourself why (or how).

One thing I like about the Anti-Design activity is it gives freedom to the designer. The designer doesn’t feel the same pressure because no one will judge their work for being awful; we want it to be. It also is an excellent group activity, and everyone can have fun poking at bad designs. Poking at good designs tends to be scarier.

You can learn a lot from a bad design. First, off you learn how a person diagrams a solution. Some people can’t diagram a solution at all. Their diagrams don’t explain anything, good or bad. Second, some people can’t tell why their design is bad. It looks bad, but they can’t explain why. Those explanations are critical for understanding their thought process. Third, you can learn where a person focuses. Some people will focus on database columns, some will focus on service interactions, and others will focus on UI interactions. You can learn a lot about a developer’s focus.

I highly recommend you use of Anti-Design, especially if you are trying to learn how software developers approach the problems they are trying to solve. You will quickly learn who gets it and who doesn’t. The ones that get it will give you better thought out and worse designs. They can even tell you why the designs are bad.

Anti-Design is an engaging way for groups that don’t know each other very well to break the ice. Given its fun nature, it provokes good conversation while making us think about how we should be approaching good design.

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