If you want the card deck version of the protocol, please contact me directly for information about how to purchase them.
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 working on a project
Computer science teachers
PhD students working on research design
Faculty at an NSF PI meeting for the RED (REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments, https://redmeeting.asee.org/program/breakout-sessions/) program
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! You can download and edit the protocol itself or use a foldable zine.
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.
Any tips on facilitating a group to use the Wrong Theory Protocol? We have mostly heard from people using wrong theory that it went well. This includes workshops for rural health providers, youth developers, architecture students, high school students, and engineering faculty. So far, the only group that seems particularly challenging is teachers. We noticed when working with teachers that they often identify aspects of their practice that already are humiliating. Research suggests that once someone feels blamed, especially connected to an important identity, they are unlikely to engage productively and grow. That is why "bystander" trainings are more effective than trainings that place people into roles like aggressor and victim; the bystander is a new role for attendees to take up. When facilitating a workshop with a group that might feel blame or get defensive about their perceived lack of power in causing humiliation, situate participants as change agents. You can also download and edit a facilitation guide:
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, inverse thinking, or the silly/impossible ideas strategy. We have been studying this and wrong theory differs in critical ways. Reverse brainstorming and inverse thinking 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.
Can I adapt this approach? Of course! WTP is creative commons licensed. Dr. Jennifer Turns (University of Washington) adapted it to ask her graduate students to first design a "painful and humiliating reflection activity, focusing specifically on what students would be asked to do and why that ask might be painful" before coming up with effective reflection activities.
How can I learn more? You can learn more about how designers think about design thinking in a chapter I wrote, in which I (briefly) reference wrong theory: