Misconceptions about Design

Design is the process of going from function to structure.  There is some purpose, or goal, or effect on the environment desired (a function), and structures are created or organized to achieve that function. See more about structure-behavior-function models of systems in this post and more about design generally on this What is Design? page from the Design in the Classroom site.  There has been much written about the process, method, or steps of design, including various models and design cycles.

There are of course numerous forms and types of design – engineering design, web design, software design, architectural design, instructional design, visual design, interaction design, and so on.  Design Studies is a journal that covers design broadly, and there are numerous journals devoted to domain-specific areas and forms of design, such as Instructional Science and Educational Technology, Research & Development (instructional design), Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis & Manufacturing (engineering design), …  There’s even a kids’ show called Design Squad that covers design more broadly as well.

What has not been well researched in virtually all areas of design are the misconceptions or preconceptions and conceptual hurdles people have when designing or learning to design (especially beginners and students, but also experienced designers as well, as will be illustrated below).  Misconceptions have been well researched in areas such as science education (see this book for example) and history education (see this book), but not in design areas such as engineering, web design, or even instructional design.  Why is this important?  The book How People Learn highlights 3 key findings that we’ve learned from research on learning and teaching, and #1 is the need to identify and confront students’ initial knowledge and misconceptions they have when learning a new subject or skill:

“Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom”

“Teachers need to pay attention to the incomplete understandings, the false beliefs, and the naive renditions of concepts that learners bring with them to a given subject.”

So, with all that in mind, below are just a few examples of misconceptions about design in various domain areas that I’ve found.  Like I said, there is not much actual research or data out there, just some anecdotal resources – I welcome any comments with other examples of misconceptions about design, and perhaps it is an area you or I or others will explore further in the future.

Software Design – Anti-Patterns

Actually this is one design area in which there is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence for misconceptions.  See this list of anti-patterns, for example. Whereas computer science design patterns are common solutions to problems that occur in software design, an anti-pattern is a commonly used yet often ineffective or counter-productive design pattern.  Anti-patterns aren’t all really ‘misconceptions’, but just as noted in the How People Learn quotes above, it makes sense to be aware of anti-patterns so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes many other designers have made.

It would be interesting to see how many of these software design anti-patterns may apply to other forms of design as well.  I’m not a computer science teacher nor was I a CS student, but I do not get the sense that anti-patterns (nor design patterns, for that matter) are covered or addressed in software engineering courses.  Perhaps they should.

Engineering Design

“Engineering design is the process of devising a system, component, or process to meet desired needs. It is a decision-making process (often iterative), in which the basic sciences, mathematics, and the engineering sciences are applied to convert resources optimally to meet these stated needs” (from p. 3 of ABET criteria).

So far I’ve mainly only found one short paper about misconceptions in engineering design.  Wendy Newstetter and others surveyed freshmen in an engineering design course (the ACM paper is not publicly accessible), and listed 5 main misconceptions about design:

  1. Ideation without substance – Students believe that design is coming up with good ideas.  And that’s it.  They forget about the rest of it – how to realize these ideas and evaluate them.
  2. Design arrogance – Students forget the constraints of the environment in which the design will reside.  They “arrogantly” ignore the constraints of the user.
  3. Design fixation – (perhaps related to the idea of “functional fixedness” as well) Students tend to focus on the first solution that comes to mind.  They stop considering alternatives.
  4. Extreme design -Students focus only on the very high level (function) or the very low level (structure), without moving between them in a formal manner and considering the giant gulf between the two levels.
  5. Design serialization – Students belief that design is a serial/linear process, ignoring iterative cycles, revisiting past decisions, and evaluating alternatives.

Instructional Design – ISD

People in the instructional technology/design field will recognize some of the above misconceptions.  The first thing I teach in my advanced instructional design course is misconceptions about ADDIE (a popular formal instructional design model).  Even the author of the most popular textbook that teaches ADDIE (Walter Dick), stated that students shouldn’t view ADDIE as a linear recipe to be followed (I don’t have the quote with me).

Rieber quotes Michael Streibel (1991, p. 12) about the difference between instructional design models (such as ADDIE) taught in the classroom and instructional design as it is actually practiced:

I first encountered the problematic relationship between plans and situated actions when, after years of trying to follow Gagné’s theory of instructional design, I repeatedly found myself, as an instructional designer, making ad hoc decisions throughout the design and development process. At first, I attributed this discrepancy to my own inexperience as an instructional designer. Later, when I became more experienced, I attributed it to the incompleteness of instructional design theories. Theories were, after all, only robust and mature at the end of a long developmental process, and instructional design theories had a very short history. Lately, however, I have begun to believe that the discrepancy between instructional design theories and instructional design practice will never be resolved because instructional design practice will always be a form of situated activity (i.e., depend on the specific, concrete, and unique circumstances of the project I am working on).

Some other misconceptions I’ve seen:

  • Online courses are worse than face to face learning.  Some students are adamant about this belief.  Obviously there are going to be bad online courses and bad face to face courses, it depends on contextual factors (the teaching, the students, the environment, etc.).  But a recent meta-analysis from the U.S. Department of Education actually found that students learned more online than face to face, and the Open Learning Initiative is another example where students learn better and faster with their online statistics course.
  • Simulations worse than the real thing.  Again, of course there are some things you can only learn from doing the real thing (like some aspects of flying an airplane or fighting in combat).  But study after study shows that you learn more and faster from a simulation than the real thing.  I don’t have some of the references handy (but see this book chapter on how people learn with simulations I wrote), but it’s obvious why in most cases.  A frog dissection simulation shows labels next to the body parts, for example.  A flight simulator lets you rapidly re-practice tough techniques and challenging flying conditions.  It’s not an either/or choice of course.  You don’t want an airplane pilot who has only used a simulation, nor would you want an airplane pilot (unless very experienced) who’s never used a simulation.
  • Lecture before simulation/experience.  This is the belief that we should lecture students before letting them use a simulation or work on an open-ended problem, because they aren’t ready for the messy experience yet.  This is counter-intuitive to most students as well, but the research shows that if you let students explore first, even if they make mistakes, and then lecture on the concepts (rather than the other way around), students will learn much more.  Again, if you think about it, it’s not so counter-intuitive.  If you get the lecture first, you more likely just tune it out like most lectures.  If you get the messy experience first, you’ll start to formulate your own questions and ideas and so forth, and you are more ready and prepared to learn from the lecture that comes afterward.
  • Topics should be broken into pieces linearly sequenced, with the learning objectives stated first, and going from simpler to more complex.  This is related to the last one and there are numerous writings about this.  Putting the learning objectives first isn’t bad, but it isn’t written in stone, either, nor are there learning objectives out there in the real world we are preparing students for.  Almost 30 years ago Hermann Härtel wrote about why we still teach physics and so forth in a linear, piece-meal fashion, and problems with that approach.  For example, often no connection is made between an electrostatics physics course and an electrical circuits engineering course, even though there are connections between the two.  Chabay & Sherwood addressed this issue and Härtel’s philosophy with their Matter & Interactions curriculum and supporting software.
  • If I tell it or have them read it, they should know it. This is the way most undergraduate courses still work.  Weed out classes.  If you didn’t memorize enough things, too bad, you fail.  See below for 2 examples of where often times students didn’t even perceive or understand what you presented right in front of their eyes.
  • Books and lectures are enough to learn anything – technology is not important, only teaching.  As I wrote about in an earlier post on 50 Examples of the Need to Improve College Teaching, the National Center for Academic Transformation found that “Successful course redesign that improves student learning while reducing instructional costs is heavily dependent upon high-quality, interactive learning materials.”  That means software.  It can help teaching and learning.  See the Open Learning Initiative I linked to earlier – one key to their success was the use of interactive statistics software.  More and more modern topics are not so easily conveyed in textual or verbal form.  And no that doesn’t mean ignoring teachers or teaching.  Teaching IS a technology itself, as are books and lecturing and whiteboards.

Web design and instructional design (and other forms of design) appear to be unrelated, but the misconceptions of all them seem to largely stem from not understanding the context of design, which in many cases is the users or people, which means better understanding how people learn and how they think and perceive.

Web Design

I know of countless ‘mistakes’ or ‘errors’ students make when learning web design and HTML and CSS and so forth (forgetting that closing tag, etc.), but I’ll just mention one possible misconception (or popular myth) I see referred to on even professional web design blogs and sites, although I think there are hundreds of misconceptions, including a whole class of misconceptions about Web 2.0 versus Web 1.0 (web sites aren’t merely “electronic brochures” anymore, for example):

  1. “Click here” is bad – Yes, having a link that simply says click here is bad.  The link needs to include context – what is at the linked site?  But the blogs giving web design advice (such as this one) go too far in saying that “click here” should be completely avoided in favor of more abstract terms like “read more”.  Using action verbs (like “click”) that tell people what to do IN ADDITION to providing some context leads to greater actual clickthrough rates.  There is some research to support that, although I don’t have the reference at hand, but it shouldn’t be surprising – action verbs that tell people what to physically do result in (surprise) them more likely doing it.

Improving Design by Better Understanding How People Learn, Think and Perceive

The above was another example where some basic understanding of research on human learning, cognition, and perception can enhance your design (when the context of that design involves people as it commonly does in most areas).  Of course, misconceptions about learning, cognition, and perception is a whole other topic that has not been well researched, but see this previous post on “Powerful Demonstrations about the Nature of Perceiving, Learning and Understanding” for some examples, such as change blindness (where something happens right in front of your eyes but you don’t see it).  Just because you put that fact on your powerpoint or you stated something out loud to your students or you put some message on that web page or online course, doesn’t mean the students or your users or audience even perceived it, yet alone understood it or memorized it.  We only pay attention to what we think is important, nobody notices the details, nobody reads the instructions.

Understanding misconceptions about design can reciprocally facilitate our understanding of teaching and learning, too, since instructional design is fundamental to education.  Despite 30 years of overwhelming research on misconceptions in science education, for example, physics and sciences class teachers still often depend on classroom demonstrations to convey principles.  See the article Why may students fail to learn from demonstrations? by Wolff-Michael Roth for an example of why that may not be such an effective instructional design technique.  There is a gap (some have called the “valley of death“) between the research and the practice (of the designers, the innovators, the teachers,…), partly due perhaps to our misconceptions about design and implementation, such as “design arrogance” and “ideation without substance.”

Posted in development, learning sciences, research, software, teaching, technology, Uncategorized
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