Douglas Engelbart's "Augmenting Human Intellect" and current UX practice

Douglas Engelbart's classic paper on Human Intellect Augmentation proposes the need to solve complex professional problems in different avenues. In his list of professions that can use his proposed system effectively includes Designers. It will be interesting to draw a parallel between Engelbart's proposition and current Design Paradigms and Workflows.

The paper points out the need for such a framework. The population and products around us are increasing at an alarming rate. Its creating this urgency of comprehending complex problems and finding solutions fast. This need extends to Users facing problems in Digital Design too. We are tackling issues of a diverse audience, languages, and differences in the access to technology. Thus, every User Experience touchpoint becomes a complex problem to solve. Design Sprint Cycle is an example of current design practices that emphasize such faster ideation. This process can provide a rapid and better comprehension of user needs and directly augments design intelligence. Stakeholders bounce off ideas that help gain better insights faster. It uses brainstorming as an artifact that helps externalize information on sticky notes or digital notebooks.

Engelbart's conceptual framework consists of Artifacts, Language, Methods, and Training. Components which increase human intellect. If we consider each factor individually, we can find interesting parallels for each in today's field of Digital Design.

Artifacts - These are physical objects that provide humans some augmentation means to derive solutions. A recent example of this can be the Apple iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil and procreate application which allows for on the go creation of designs. Such a device provides a means to solve design problems irrespective of their location. It allows for information storage, information handling, and information display. Every activity being essential in the eyes of the author for an artifact computer.

Language - It's the way words and symbols attach to concepts. Teams today have design systems built around a specific style-guide which allows the designer to not worry about small units of design and their form. They can instead focus on solving the User Facing problem and gain insights.

Methods - An individual working to better a User Experience has to organize his methods so that it's goal-centred and solves the problem. IDEO's framework of Design thinking is an exemplar guiding method. The approach asks you to empathize with users, define the problem, ideate, prototype and then test the solution.

Training - This is the conditioning needed by humans to use artifacts, language, and methods. Material Design utilizes a living design system that takes cues from the traditional print design so that designers don't have an abstract concept to understand. Concepts of ink, shadows, and elevation make for a comprehensible User Interface.

This system puts a lot of focus on generating newer artifacts allowing for manipulating text/ images with low human effort. Generative design and user-facing tools like Autodraw are examples of similar artifacts of research in the field of digital design, which allows for the faster synthesis of intelligence without much work. The system also specifies the two domains of methods used. The human processes and artifact processes. UX design remains true to a Human-Artifact process. The mediating section where cooperative interaction between the two domains occurs. Humans provide constraints to the system and the system generates the design for them. A hint of this phenomenon is visible in Responsive Design where constraint-based design is a major element.

Engelbart lists a concept of capability hierarchy which underlines the processes and actions used to augment intellect. The Discussion of the same in the context of current Design practices follows here

Mental Structuring: This refers to the internal organization of conscious and unconscious mental images that provides intuition, judgment, and inference. Design Specifications reflect such kind of structuring. It involves paraphrasing user needs into directives for the design team. It's not so much as a tool for judgment rather a guideline for working towards the right human needs.

Concept Structuring: This refers to the capacity to which one can grasp a tool and use it via mental mechanisms. UI designers use representative texts, labels, iconography to abstract out concepts to some visual element. This is also evident when designers wireframing where they bock components for the structure of the final design.

Symbol Structuring - Its called an important part of the language which allows representation of the concepts. Similarly, Designers resort to using Atomic Design where individual components are part of a library which you can use to generate complex combination with ease.

Process Structuring - This structure deals with the manipulation of the symbols to explain concepts. Current practitioners use iterative design to build the best product. They do AB testing and use Prototyping tools like invision to visualize the way the software interacts.

To conclude the comparative analysis. UX and UX practices are directly or indirectly using all components of the proposed conceptual framework to better the process and produce human-centred products. The hurdles of setting up tooling and workflow software are less now. Designers can now concentrate on breaking down user-facing problems and designing better solutions.