A Map for Misfits

A Map for Misfits

The original designer of The Sims, Will Wright, intentionally designed the game’s balconies to be more intelligent by ensuring they are an appropriate width and depth. This released the characters to concentrate more on their emotionally driven behaviour, such as falling in love or violent disagreements.

This is true of real balconies as well. An appropriately sized balcony inspires activities that would not have existed otherwise.

So, if Romeo and Juliet had a bigger balcony, would they have danced in the cool moonlight or had thoughtful conversations with friends while eating breakfast? Would their love story have ended less tragically as a result of that? Or perhaps no story at all? Who knows? Love problems run deeper than the depth of a balcony.

What appropriate-sized balconies do is point us towards a way to find and understand fundamental problems through misfits. Here’s a simple example by Christopher Alexander to explain this:

If we want to match a button from a box of buttons, we don't look for similarities, we look at how they are different. One might be too big, one might be a different colour and yet another one might be a different material.

It is much easier to explain the misfit of a wrong button than to justify the congruity of one which fits.

Similarly, problems are highlighted when the form (what we create) comes in contact with its context (the environment). Creating a map of misfits is what helps us have a deeper understanding of the fundamental problems and solutions.

For example, putting a simple sign in form in contact with people trying to access their money might highlight a couple of friction points:

  • People forget their passwords
  • They share them with attackers
  • They re-use the same ones
  • Most people don’t want to pay for password managers
  • And so on

Instead of trying to keep a comprehensive list in our heads, we can visualise them with a map of forces where each one varies based on the amount of friction it adds. Thicker lines might add more friction. Lighter ones less.

A diagram of misfits for a sign in form

This map enables us to visualise how well a solution fits into its context. It also helps us understand whether these forces will remain, be reduced, or be removed entirely when we introduce a new solution.

To remove the force of people forgetting their passwords we could encourage them to use password managers, but would that be helpful?

We can continue to go deeper and build out our map by using first principles, cognitive biases, or mental models to form the foundation of questions like: Why do people get phished? Why do they forget their passwords? Why are we using passwords in the first place? Why do people re-use the same ones?

Building a map of misfit is useful to help us understand and solve the deeper underlying problems, but we know the map is not the territory, so to judge the fitness of a form, we need to put it back into its context again and let the design cycle repeat itself: Did it remove the forces? Which forces remain? Which ones are new?

Design is a process of resolving conflicting constraints, and, as Alexander rightfully said, drawings help us work out intricate relationships between parts. That’s what a map for misfits helps us do: sometimes it’s useful to help people access their money, other times it might just unravel a love problem.

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Photo by Merve Nasir