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Our first ideas are seldom our best ideas. Many turn to brainstorming/ideation techniques, yet struggle to come up with ideas that help them make progress, because fixation can make it challenging to have insight that is genuinely new. To help designers frame design problems—and therefore take ownership of them, I developed the wrong theory protocol. The goal of this protocol is to support learners to take risks and understand the problem they are designing for. In this protocol, designers first briefly describe the design problem they are working on, then name the needs, constraints and requirements they identified. They are then asked to come up with the worst possible design, one that violates constraints and does not address needs, prior to generating good ideas.
How does it work? What does it do? The wrong theory protocol works best when we really push ourselves to come up with ideas that could harm and humiliate. Sometimes we have to push people to come up with really terrible ideas. It is easy to come up with lazy designs, but a truly terrible design takes some work. It is worth pushing past existing bad designs. Too often, we find that our bad ideas already exist, and are sometimes even commonplace!
In the earliest version of the protocol, I did not include an emphasis on humiliating the user. Since adding this emphasis, the "good" ideas seem much more empathetic. This makes me wonder if designers feel beholden to the users, having envisioned humiliating them.
It may seem counterintuitive, but spending time planning adverse effects seems to help designers better consider user experience.
Who should use wrong theory? Can I use it? Yes! Anyone who gets stuck or feels their design ideas could be better—basically, anyone—might find the wrong theory protocol helpful. We have used this protocol with high school students, teachers, architects, instructional designers, PhD students working on research design, engineers, at an NSF PI meeting for the RED (REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments, https://redmeeting.asee.org/program/breakout-sessions/) program, and we use it ourselves. Every time, it helps people get unstuck and come up with better ideas. You can access an editable version of the protocol at the bottom of the page.I am actively studying how, when, and under what conditions the wrong theory protocol works, so if you use it, I'd love to hear how it went!
When should I use it? The wrong theory protocol is a pre-ideation technique and seems to work best after you have already gathered some information about the problem.
Where did the wrong theory protocol come from? The wrong theory protocol was inspired by Scott Dadich’s 2014 Wired article, “Why getting it wrong is the future of design.” I introduced a version of this protocol in 2015, but have been testing and refining it since then.
Sometimes people tell me wrong theory is like reverse brainstorming or inverse thinking, but I think it differs in a critical way. Both of those techniques tend to result in more closed problem spaces. In reverse brainstorming, you typically flip the desired outcome into a negative outcome, and in inverse thinking, you typically flip the problem statement into a negative one, then try to optimize the design for that negative or inverse situation. When asked to flip the problem, there are many possible ways to invert it, and as a result, the process depends heavily on your initial interpretation of the problem. Like the wrong theory protocol, reverse brainstorming and inverse thinking aim designers at bad design, but the wrong theory protocol does so in a more generative manner that leaves the problem open and malleable. This leaves room for new insights about the problem itself.
You can also learn more about how designers think about design thinking in a chapter I wrote, in which I (briefly) reference wrong theory: Svihla, V. (12/2017). Design thinking and agile design: New trends or just good design? In R. West (Ed.), Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology (1st ed.). Available at https://lidtfoundations.pressbooks.com/chapter/design-thinking/
Editable Word document version of the Wrong Theory Protocol