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Software Design and Need for Closure Or How Many Designers Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

Nurit on ‎06-12-2013 12:52 AM


Earlier this week I was asking a colleague “basic” questions about a new feature that we are designing, and it made me think about the different traits a good designer should have. This is not about knowledge, experience or technical abilities, but more about personality. You may have some of these traits by nature, but if you want to improve your design process, you should nourish and develop them.

In this post, I want to discuss a less obvious trait–the need for closure. It is a basic, survival need that helps us identify shapes and ideas. We are all familiar with our ability to recognize the shapes in this picture -



How is this related to design?

Let’s go back to our initial question: How many designers does it take to change a light bulb? 

Answer: Does it have to be a light bulb? 

One of the important traits of a designer is the ability to ask “stupid questions” like “why are we doing that?” or “Does it have to have four wheels?”.  Many times, asking these questions causes people to feel impatient. People may feel that we are bogging down the meeting. But actually these questions help to open the door to real innovation and progress.

It is not just about asking the questions, it is about the desire to review all options, thinking openly without closure. It is one of those things that can really make a difference. The need for cognitive closure varies between people (and cultures). You may want to read this classic article or check yourself with the following scale.

Many people are looking for answers as they start thinking about a feature. How will it work? What technology should we use? Often requirements are phrased as solutions; people even go as far as describing the interface details on a requirement “we need a button in screen XX that will do this and that” or start prototyping. This is a basic mistake. Human but wrong. We are programmed to find solutions fast–it is basic survival–but designing is different. In a research project from 2005, researchers found that Quantity and quality of the solutions (or ideas) reached by a group are affected by the need for closure, namely that solutions proposed by groups with high (vs. low) need for closure are less numerous and are rated as less creative (Motivated Closed-Mindedness and Creativity in Small Groups).

As we start thinking about a requirement, we need to begin by exploring the need. Who needs it? Why? When? In what context? What are the circumstances? What are the options for implementation? Only when we gather information and map these variables can we start discussing various options. We can use this time to free our minds, to ignore reality and restrictions, and to avoid structure and order. Later, all of these will become an important part of the design process, but not just yet.


John Cleese in a brilliant talk about creativity (which begins with a full review of the ‘light bulb’ jokes) describes two modes people operate at: close and open. The closed mode is often crucial for getting things done — but it is not creative, while the open mode, says Cleese, is more relaxed, less purposeful; you may reach a higher level of creativity. One of the factors that will lead you to this open mode is time – sticking with the problem for a longer time, keep thinking about it even after you have reached a solution (see minute 18) and tolerate the discomfort of not solving the problem quickly.





About the Author


Architect and User Experience expert with more than 10 years of experience in designing complex applications for all platforms. Currently in Operations Analytics - Big data and Analytics for IT organisations. Follow me on twitter @nuritps

Guillaume Hassoun
on ‎06-12-2013 05:02 AM

Thanks Nurit, very interesting and true! 

on ‎06-13-2013 12:00 AM

I agree, it is not simple but so important to not take things for granted just because they are already there ("Lets put all this info in a table because 1) we have all this info 2) we already implemented a table"...) . Thinking in open mode and asking 'stupid' questions eventually leads to better design.

Thanks also for sharing this great video talk !

on ‎06-17-2013 11:04 PM

Very nice description of one ofthe building blocks of our profession. I loved the John Cleese video.

on ‎06-25-2013 09:59 AM

This is excellent. It's so important to ask questions before we work heads down to dig solutions. Why we do it? What the needs are? Who will use it? Where and when? I think this is an important characterist for creative people.


Here's my short post on the power of why, maybe it can trigger some thoughts.

Nathan Curtis
on ‎06-26-2013 10:25 AM

...and the sign of a maturing designer is the ability to shift between "open" and "closed" modes fluidly based on the needs of the organization, timeline, and such, as well as the judgment to know when to push more in one direction or the other.

on ‎07-01-2013 05:32 AM

Nice one ;)


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