Thursday, April 09, 2009

Hunkering: Putting Disorientation into the Design Process

The definition and use of hunkering in design ...

"Hunkering." That's what Jason told us he was doing. He was hunkering — for the third time today.

To us, it looked like he was daydreaming. He'd just finished leaning all the raw materials against the wall, basically in the positions they'll occupy once the project was completed. Then he stepped back and stared at them, with this quizzical expression on his face. Apparently, this was hunkering.

Jason (not his real name) is a master cabinetmaker. His reputation amongst the regional home builders, other carpenters, and general contractors is exceptional. Customers love his work. He wasn't just daydreaming. This is part of his work.

As part of a study of skilled craftspeople and their tools, we convinced Jason to let us shadow him for a couple of days. Jason was not a person of many words when he works. (During breaks and at the bar after the job, well, that was a different story.) He's intense and focused. Often, our questions only got a one or two word answer.

So, we weren't surprised when our inquiry into his behavior revealed a single word, "hunkering." Our curiosity was peaked because Jason wasn't the only one we'd seen hunker. We just didn't know what it was called.

How We Hunker

As the project continued and we studied talented people performing a variety of crafts, we saw hunkering in many different forms:

* A print designer, creating a multi-page charity event program, carefully assembled initial sketches of the booklet in a little working mockup.
* A sculptor pasted cut-up pieces of her sketches to the partially completed block.
* An interior designer placed fabric samples and catalog pictures out, side-by-side, in the room he was redecorating.
* A screenwriter would act out the scenes he was scripting.
* A dress designer would take fabric swatches and dress up her mannequins, holding the fabric together with pins and tape.

Even though each craft was different, the behavior of hunkering was the same:

* They lay out whatever physical pieces they have -- raw materials, sketches, and images they'd collected.
* They work to put things close to where they'd be in their final form, relative to the other pieces.
* Then they step back and ponder it for a while.
* In some cases, they walk around to view it from a different angle, to see what it looked like from another perspective.
* Then they start back up to work.

The entire process took about two to five minutes.

What Hunkering Does

After talking to several dozen craftspeople about why they hunker, we think we have a pretty good idea what's happening here. As they're building their design, they have a solid picture in their mind of what they are creating. However, when they put the physical pieces into the basic form, things aren't quite right.

In essence, it's disorienting. Once the craftsperson has disoriented themself, they go through a process of reconciliation. Either the work-in-progress needs correction or the design in their head needs adjustment.

If the work-in-progress is what's wrong — it's taken a direction different from what the craftsperson is thinking it should be — then they make whatever corrections necessary to get it back on track.

However, sometimes it's what the craftsperson had been thinking that is not working. Maybe the materials aren't looking the way they had intended? Maybe the combination of the installation's locale and the materials aren't what they'd imagined? Maybe seeing it for real inspires them with a better idea? Whatever the reason, the craftsperson can now adjust their goal and mental images of the final result.

When they are done, both the work-in-progress and their imagined final result are back on the same path — ready for the next round of work."    (Continued via UIE, Jared Spool)    [Usability Resources]

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