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What if I told you that you don't know how to think?

by Max Applin
16th January 2019

As UXers we’re often guilty of utilising a problem-solving approach that revolves around prior experience, learned bias, logic and association. This approach is known as reproductive thinking, as defined by Max Wertheimer, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology.

Most designers will be familiar with gestalt principles (if you aren’t, go read about them after you finish this article.) They form the basis of the way our brains process shape and form and how we connect the dots without really thinking about it. It’s a subject that’s been written about extensively, so I’m not going to cover it here. 

What I’m here to tell you is that we need to learn how to think and more specifically, how to think productively.

The problem with reproductive thinking

To start understanding why this reproductive thinking is problematic for designers, let’s examine what reproductive thinking looks like:

You might say that if a person can solve a mathematical equation, they must be good at thinking or problem solving, but the reality would be that they are following a logic that has been learned in an academic setting. They are thinking but following a predefined process rather than using an explorative approach.

Another example, that I think is particularly relevant to our industry, is that just because someone has been at a company or in a field for a long time, they might be considered experienced or an ‘expert’. 

However, it may also make them prone to institutionalised ways of thinking that inhibit productive problem solving. Often this is compounded in companies that only do things in specific ways with little scope for anything else.

It’s not to say that experience or the ability to follow logic is irrelevant – of course these things have importance, and we value them greatly in our field but to say they make a person good at productive thinking would be wrong. It makes them good at reproductive thinking.

To quote Max Wertheimer himself: “The role of past experience is of high importance, but what matters is what one has gained from experience — blind, understood connections, or insight into structural inner relatedness. What matters is how and what one recalls, how he applies what’s recalled, whether blindly, in a piece meal way, or in accordance with the situation.”

Check yourself and your approach

To say what we’ve seen before means it also holds true in another context is vain and dangerous for us as UX practitioners. In essence, valuing process and management over creativity and autonomy sets a dangerous precedent. True problem solving only comes from the insight gained through open, honest inquiry.

There is a reason disruptive companies are often founded by those that are young and inexperienced in a corporate environment, they are not bound by the ingrained bias brought about by a career path. 

Most of the time, they identify an unmet need from an audience that is not well understood by a big multinational entity and exploit it with insight that can only be gained from discussion, observation and active participation with that audience.

This also plays into why clients hire agencies – they sit outside global organisations and offer different perspectives on seemingly deadlocked or dead cert issues. This is because the patterns and experiences which inform their ideas aren’t conditioned by an intimate, institutionalised knowledge of the client’s company.

What is productive thinking?

The basis of productive thinking is understanding what the relevant relationships in a problem space are. Only with open and honest inquiry can we gain the insight we need to take to transition from a state that is meaningless to one that is meaningful.

To do this effectively, most problems need to be reorganised. 

To demonstrate insightful reorganisation - grab a piece of paper and draw nine dots as so:


Then, without taking your pen off the paper, attempt to draw four straight lines that touch all nine dots. You probably made something like one of these examples:

MAIN native506

In this example, our minds default to gestalt principles of closure and proximity and interpret that a. the dots are a group, and b. imply they form a square, thus giving us the impression that the working space is constrained to the square – even though the task expresses no limitation of the sort, it’s purely a constraint devised by the mind and is not a part of the problem.

The perception of a square is irrelevant. There is only one relevant relationship in the puzzle, that of the 9 dots to the 4 lines.

For an experience designer or strategist, the most important thing is to be able to define what the relevant relationships in a problem space are, and that means looking beyond the immediate to challenge assumptions that we might have about a problem space.

The problem that many of us face is usually one of two things: 

  1. Hubris, a pre-occupation of needing to show how good we are at thinking and solving problems on our own, which stops us from asking questions. i.e. “I’m not going to put my hand up and ask if I can draw outside the dots, I’m just going to look at every permutation within the dots.”
  2. Process, being shut down from asking questions because it doesn’t fit the formula for how things work. i.e. I use grids for designing, so this is familiar to me, I’ll just do everything in a grid and it’ll work somehow.

This is exactly what clients do, they ask you to solve a problem but don’t necessarily understand what information is relevant to you, it’s our responsibility to get the right information by asking the right questions.

To put it plainly, we need to spend less time looking for answers and more time looking for the right questions. i.e. What if I draw outside of the grid?

You'd in fact perhaps create something that looks like this:

SOLUTION native506

By applying productive thinking you can reorganise the problem space, and point towards a simple, new solution. That’s the crux of productive thinking.

I talked about understanding problems in my previous article, the core of which was how do we find what the relevant component parts of a problem space are? How do we define and understand them, and a what approach can take to gain the insight we need to start thinking productively and coming up with feasible solutions? This inquiry is aided by productive thinking as I’ve outlined here.

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