Framework Errors In Design and Action

The finger-pointing to the moon is a model, not a truth. What happens when our models and frameworks become held as truths instead of guides?

There’s an often rephrased Zen quote attributed to the Buddha that says:

Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.

Zen Phrase

Often our models, frameworks, or even data are fingers pointing to real life. I’ve spent my career dealing with fingers and moons, but mostly fingers. Fingers are in our control. They are us. The moon? That’s more complicated. A good model is intended to help us frame our thinking, to reduce unnecessary complexity, and to support us in taking wise action. Over at Cense, we use frameworks to help clarify what our clients are seeing, feeling, and thinking before we work to create change with them. It’s all about establishing our mindset — where it is and how it works.

Our mindset — the mental models, habits of mind, or ways of thinking about something — is the primary factor influencing what we do (or do not do). It shapes how we see the world around us, what we attend to, and determines what has value. When we become aware of how we think we reveal the biases (everyone has them) that direct our attention so we’re better able to direct them to where we want to go, intentionally.


Models, used unreflectively, can shape our mindsets in ways that keep us locked in, rather than open to new possibilities. In a recent article in the MIT Technology Review, Rebecca Ackermann, looks at how Design Thinking has evolved (or perhaps, failed to evolve) from a set of frameworks and tools designed to help people create useful things to something more self-serving. Ackermann rightly asks: what went wrong?

Designing for Design (Thinking)

After having studied, taught, and practiced design professionally for more than 15 years I came to appreciate the wonders that Design Thinking offered in helping people think about making things. Design Thinking combines theory, practice, mindset-making, and strategy together in a way that helps people understand creation with intention. That is a way of saying: making stuff that people want, like, and use.

That’s what most of us do most of the time. The things we make are products, services, experiences, policies, or some combination.

To help this out, I’ve developed a model that I use to aid in my teaching and consultation work and to help explain what can be a complicated process in more simple terms. There are many others and my view is that you ought to use whatever models help you to understand something. There’s no right way to think about design thinking, although there might be ways that are more useful than others.

The design helix is not a plug-and-play framework. Its simplicity is in the way it speaks to what happens in design and can guide us in how to plan for design moving forward. What it doesn’t do — or ever intends to do — is to tell you how to do it. (Read this article to learn more about the design helix and its use). This is where many frameworks fail. They provide an illusion of what’s needed.

They don’t do the work.

Doing the Work

Ruth Schmidt recently wrote an excellent analysis of the tensions that are currently in play within the field of behavioural design. She points to the issue of design thinking and its contributions to the field and how its aim of democratization has come with side-effects that aren’t all that helpful.

Design presents a cautionary tale: while design thinking’s “double diamond” process and tools like personas are simple to explain, they vastly oversimplify design practice. Behavioral design has its own equivalent in attractive but lightweight visualizations of clustered biases or tendencies to see gamification as a fix-it. Even go-to methods like COM-B can, in the wrong hands, be seen as check-the-box exercises.

Ruth Schmidt, Three Tensions Behavioral Design Must Navigate

Schmidt adds:

Making methodology accessible while maintaining a professional level of rigor is a delicate balancing act. Doing it well requires practitioners to become comfortable providing access to tools while also protecting against the temptation to equate process-following with methodology.

Ruth Schmidt, Three Tensions Behavioral Design Must Navigate

She points to the tension between a version of design thinking and design practice (or doing).

Or consider the massive market for behaviour change writing featuring — nudges, mental models, habits and more — and how little practical products emerge from their application. This isn’t that the ideas are bad, but are they practical? Another example that comes to mind is Mitch Joel’s recent interview with Morag Barrett (below). Barrett has written extensively on the ways in which we can be more social and “human” in our work, citing plenty of evidence to support the positive benefits of it. In the interview, Joel (despite enthusiastically supporting the ideas she’s suggesting) struggles to square what Barrett suggests with what he sees around him.

Joel is wrestling with the practice while Barrett speaks to the models.

Evidence of Evidence

What is the evidence that people use models and frameworks in their actions? The answer — which I’ll explore in depth in a later post — is that they aren’t used as many experts think. When was the last time you said “I need to draw on that [Insert title] book to make a decision about my life?” Even if you agreed with all of it, my guess is that most of it wasn’t applied. The theory is that we will learn something new from well-argued, evidence-supported clear examples and apply it to our life. But, it rarely works that way.

In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.

Albert Einstein (attributed)

I’ve spent decades studying, teaching, and practicing the psychology of behaviour change. Much of that time overlapped with the study and practice of design (how to make change). Drawing on evidence and frameworks respectfully, honestly, practically, and usefully remains the greatest challenge in my work. If it all was so easy, we’d do it. If the evidence just worked, we’d have less trouble. But it doesn’t always work and, in most cases, even the best evidence is difficult to put into practice because implementation into the messiness of the world is difficult.

Just like Winston Churchill said about democracy, evidence — reliable, sound, quality research that applies to the right context at the right time (including practice-based evidence) — is the worst form of input into a decision, except for all the others. The best examples of good frameworks and evidence being applied and done so consistently is when we see it done by design.

We will continue to make framework errors until we’re willing to pause and understand our fingers and the moon together. Ruth Schmidt and Rebecca Akermann’s work have pointed their fingers at reasons why. The relevance, utility and impact of our work depends upon it.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: