Thinking about design pathfinding, which is a bit inside-baseball but forgive me

16.18, Thursday 20 Oct 2022

I ran across design pathfinding, a new-to-me phrase, so I’ve been reading up.

…and I can’t find much, except this, about pathfinding research.

Pathfinding research is the work that enables us to peek around corners and shine light on new pathways.

As it fits with other types of research (think of this in the context of, say, AI research about text synthesis, or research into VR interactions):

Strategic research identifies longer-term aims or interests and means of achieving them. Foundational research illuminates the perceptions, needs, motivations, and/or pain points of the people you’re building for, yielding evergreen insights. To perform pathfinding research is to leverage both of these core components, triangulate data sources both within and outside your company, and find a lighthouse in the distance to steer your shipmates toward.

Gray is at Meta, which figures, because the two people who (independently) said “design pathfinding” to me are both also from Meta.

Gray doesn’t mention design but does mention this: Cultivating visibility.

Experiment with different versions of decks that speak to different audiences. Try videos, mini museums, trivia, workshops, and other creative ways to get others engaged in the insights.

I like this! A very design way of thinking.

Pathfinding, per Gray, comes across as an approach which is orchestrated around external outcomes: not the local and internal “we learnt X” but instead “as a consequence the organisation did X rather than Y.”

So that’s pathfinding research. From there I think I can build a bridge to design pathfinding?

Now there are all kinds of design methods for invention. Design fiction, prototyping, thinking through making

…and part of an invention project, if it is to be effective, is a focus on communication, creating change, informing strategy etc.

(The methods I mention are all very material-first. There are user-first methods too of course and of course you use both. Though I feel like user-first approaches are more closely allied to the “scouting” function of a product org; different methods for different stages.)

What grabs my attention about design pathfinding, as far as I understand it, is that the material-first design tools of artefacts, fiction, making, etc are all potentially employed, but also direction-setting and influence are goals and part of the conversation from day 1. It’s not an optional extra.

There is an intention to reveal a new product opportunity and make it compelling for others, or to uncover a research need and create the desire to get there, or to show a design route as right or wrong and as a consequence advocate for the next steps of investment of time and resources.

Now that’s something that those of us who have been involved in design and invention would nod at impatiently, like, obviously, forever, so what’s handy is that there is a name for it. Not a neutral or inward-looking name like “design research” but a name that foregrounds the wider function and frames design as a journey.

Making plus building conviction, as a way to invent. I could align myself with that.

So I’m into this as an approach. Or at least as a label because I’m guessing what it means. Is “design pathfinding” a term with currency outside Meta? Is there anything else I should read?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.