Hunkering: Putting Disorientation into the Design Process

by Jared M. Spool

Published on on January 21, 2016.

Hunkering.” That’s what Jason told us he was doing. He was hunkering—for the third time today.

To us, it looked like he was daydreaming. He’d just finished leaning all the raw materials against the wall, basically in the positions they’ll occupy once the project was completed. Then he stepped back and stared at them, with this quizzical expression on his face. Apparently, this was hunkering.

Jason (not his real name) is a master cabinetmaker. His reputation amongst the regional home builders, other carpenters, and general contractors is exceptional. Customers love his work. He wasn’t just daydreaming. This is part of his work.

As part of a study of skilled craftspeople and their tools, we convinced Jason to let us shadow him for a couple of days. Jason was not a person of many words when he works. (During breaks and at the bar after the job, well, that was a different story.) He’s intense and focused. Often, our questions only got a one or two word answer.

So, we weren’t surprised when our inquiry into his behavior revealed a single word, “hunkering.” Our curiosity was peaked because Jason wasn’t the only one we’d seen hunker. We just didn’t know what it was called.

How We Hunker

As the project continued and we studied talented people performing a variety of crafts, we saw hunkering in many different forms:

  • A print designer, creating a multi-page charity event program, carefully assembled initial sketches of the booklet in a little working mockup.
  • A sculptor pasted cut-up pieces of her sketches to the partially completed block.
  • An interior designer placed fabric samples and catalog pictures out, side-by-side, in the room he was redecorating.
  • A screenwriter would act out the scenes he was scripting.
  • A dress designer would take fabric swatches and dress up her mannequins, holding the fabric together with pins and tape.

Even though each craft was different, the behavior of hunkering was the same:

  • They lay out whatever physical pieces they have—raw materials, sketches, and images they’d collected.
  • They work to put things close to where they’d be in their final form, relative to the other pieces.
  • Then they step back and ponder it for a while.
  • In some cases, they walk around to view it from a different angle, to see what it looked like from another perspective.
  • Then they start back up to work.

The entire process took about two to five minutes.

What Hunkering Does

After talking to several dozen craftspeople about why they hunker, we think we have a pretty good idea what’s happening here. As they’re building their design, they have a solid picture in their mind of what they are creating. However, when they put the physical pieces into the basic form, things aren’t quite right.

In essence, it’s disorienting. Once the craftsperson has disoriented themself, they go through a process of reconciliation. Either the work-in-progress needs correction or the design in their head needs adjustment.

If the work-in-progress is what’s wrong—it’s taken a direction different from what the craftsperson is thinking it should be—then they make whatever corrections necessary to get it back on track.

However, sometimes it’s what the craftsperson had been thinking that is not working. Maybe the materials aren’t looking the way they had intended? Maybe the combination of the installation’s locale and the materials aren’t what they’d imagined? Maybe seeing it for real inspires them with a better idea? Whatever the reason, the craftsperson can now adjust their goal and mental images of the final result.

When they are done, both the work-in-progress and their imagined final result are back on the same path—ready for the next round of work.

Why Visual Disorientation Is Crucial

Whether creating something completely out of the craftsperson’s head or working off of diagrams, the translation from that ideal perception to the actual design doesn’t always go smoothly. Visual disorientation is a fast way to identify the places where things don’t quite match up. Hunkering, in its simplest form, is a chance to force a moment of visual disorientation—to make things seem foreign and out of place.

Hunkering gives the designer a chance to get lost in the reality of their design. Like visiting a vacation spot you’ve only seen pictures of, the initial impression takes a little getting used to. Then, once you’ve had a chance to orient yourself, to find the familiar elements you were expecting and place them relative to each other, the vacation spot becomes more comfortable. But in those places where the pictures didn’t match the reality, that’s what will stand out.

Hunkering, and its subsequent visual disorientation, can be a crucial tool for the designer. Used properly, it can prevent downstream errors and give new insights into the final results.

One common trap we see designers fall into, is they don’t hunker often enough. By waiting too long to see what they are building, the resulting product gets further and further away from their concept. When the design is finally ready, it’s so far away that reconciliation becomes difficult. A common trait that all the master craftspeople we studied had was that they hunkered frequently. In some cases, multiple times per day.

(If you’re immersed in an Agile environment, you will likely see the relationship between frequent iterations and frequent hunkering. This isn’t a coincidence—it’s part of the culture of Agile.)

Digital Hunkering Techniques

When we started studying how great digital designers worked, we recognized the same sort of hunkering processes, albeit in digital form:

  • Visual designers would render their designs along side their sketches.
  • Interaction designers would create working prototypes to walk through the use cases.
  • Information architects would simulate a walk through with the partial wireframes they’d created.

Each time the goal was the same as the other craftspeople we saw—to compare what their imagined design to what they were actually building.

There are several easy techniques that web and software designers can use to get the necessary disorientation. For example, a usability test lets designers see their design through the eyes of the users. Watching test participants interact with the elements in a prototype can quickly point out discrepencies that the designers wouldn’t see otherwise.

In our work, we’ve found having robust personas and scenarios can help role play the design’s experience when potential users aren’t within arms’ reach. Like the screenwriter, the designer can adopt the role of the persona and try to execute the scenario. Seeing how much effort is involved to get through the entire process can be disturbingingly insightful.

When we conduct field visits or interviews, we’ll often play a game where we first guess how the participant will answer our questions, before we talk with them. Both the initial conversation of what we imagine the participant’s world to be like, and then seeing the reality of their situation, can give us new perspectives on who our users are and what they are trying to accomplish.

Several teams we’ve worked with use the walls of their “war room” to place their sketches, diagrams, and mockups. Team members and other colleagues frequent the war room, looking at the various artifacts and listening to regular group walkthroughs. In these “pre-enactments” of the user experience, they’re talking through how the user would handle both “happy path” scenarios (where everything goes perfectly) and “edge conditions” (where things push the design to its limits).

Hunkering techniques, such as these, gives the designer an opportunity to compare what they think they’re building with what they actually are building. When done frequently through the process, the technique—stepping away from the design, looking at it from a fresh perspective, and reconciling the differences that result—is an important tool in the designer’s toolbox.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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