Sweeping: A Metaphor

Your metaphor of the day is sweeping the floor with a broom, inspired by some thoughts that crept into my head as I was sweeping the kitchen and living-room–a task now abandoned so that I can get some of these ideas down…

Brooms are actually a very weird type of technology if you think about it. There’s a good reason that a broom isn’t shaped like a squeegee, and I think it makes for a useful metaphor to employ in our thinking about how to operate in complexity. Imagine what would happen if a broom was just a flat blade. Obviously it wouldn’t work for what brooms work for, and the reasons for this are interesting.

A broom is a tight bundle of bristles that are strong enough together to form a pushing blade, an almost impermeable barrier that they create packed densely together. The flexibility of each individual bristle allows them to effectively scrape the nooks and crannies of any irregular surface with an odd kind of flicking motion created by the buildup and release of tension in their flexible structure. They’re almost fluid in their effect, like the spray of water onto a bumpy gravel surface, but the effect is created almost entirely by the tips of little bendy branches. As these tips flick things into the air, the impermeable blade of the bundle knocks them forward.

Why do I think this is interesting? Because there’s a lot of hidden complexity here, and I think it will make for a useful metaphor. Let’s go a bit further…

Have you ever tried to teach a lazy person to use a broom? I’d imagine some of you know exactly why I’m asking this question. Let me flip that and instead of insulting anybody, I’ll talk about the first time my father taught me to use a push broom effectively. I was very young and working for the Summer for his construction company; so a lot of my job consisted of moving materials, like large stacks of lumber, from one part of the job site to another, as well as lots of site cleanup. Keeping a job site clean (i.e. safe) was very important, and I remember the push-broom lesson clearly because my Dad was (as is his usual mode) positive, passionate, and weirdly the most skilled person you’ve ever seen complete a mundane task. He demonstrated this sweeping pattern that consisted of longer pushes interspersed with shorter staccato bursts. It planted this pattern in my mind of understanding that the ideal way to employ a broom incorporated an understanding that a single pass was never going to pick everything up. There was a lot of redundancy and variation in the method. Especially when sweeping outdoors, it makes sense to try and push larger stuff further with strong pushes and focus on the tiny particles and dust with shorter ones. When there’s lots of dust involved, you need to limit longer pushes because pushing dust into the air is not as effective a cleaning method as keeping it on the ground and pushing it somewhere it can be picked up. Kicking dust up also has the tendency to create messes elsewhere on the site, like on vertical surfaces that are less convenient to clean.

I’ve always thought it was interesting also how easy it feels to pick up a pile of gathered debris but nearly impossible when you face it as the nearly invisible spread of tiny particles across a room. The larger the pile is, the less work you have to do to get an effective scoop of it. Picking up the majority of contents takes seconds, but you can spend a whole minute trying to get that last little bit that won’t get into the dustpan. It’s weird, but also makes sense if you think about it. Piles of things move together because the individual particles push one-another as well. The smaller the pile, the more work the broom has to do, and an uneven flicking motion, no matter how dense, can only reach so many parts of a surface.

The first thing that came to mind when I started to think of this as a metaphor was conversation. Conversation is crucial in design work, both in the gathering of ethnographic insights from users in the form of interviews or workshops and in the synthesis of those insights in analytic conversations and workshops among the design team, as well as in co-creation with users and stakeholders. A conversation is not a flat blade that crosses the surface of a topic just once like a squeegee. It is an uneven bundle of attempts to probe a person’s experience and perception. It visits and revisits an area and tries to flick things up out of crannies that were hidden from view. It tries to gather them into clusters of patterns so that insights can be picked up.

A survey, on the other hand, is a flat blade. It will cross the surface once with a fixed and rigid structure and whatever it didn’t pull forward is getting left behind. I would say using a survey to gather design insights is a bit like trying to clean your driveway with a squeegee. If your driveway happens to be made of glass and you’re just trying to get the liquid off, have at it.

A conversation should not be rigid. It should be flexible. In user interviews we often bring two interviewers in so that one can pick up on patterns the other might not have seen, can probe topics from a slightly different angle, and often so that they can pull the conversation back to an earlier point and revisit an area that they thought left some particles on the ground. We often go back and talk to the same people again as new insights are revealed in our analysis or following conversations. Before, during, and after each interview we revisit the interview guide and make adjustments based on what we’ve seen, what’s happening, and what we expect. No two interviews are the same because we adjust to their pattern of response, and different areas end up being useful or interesting from different subjects. This is also why we try and do a good quantity of interviews on the same problem area, and we look at whether we’re diversifying the types of people we’re interviewing. We’re attempting to form a tight bundle of flexible structures that together form something more effective than just a single flicking bendy branch would be (one conversation) or a rigid flat blade would be (a survey). This surface is uneven and complex, with lots of little cracks and crannies. Both the tool we employ and the methods we employ wielding it have to account for that.

There’s also an obvious metaphor here for me with regards to the process of design. I often tell people that when I’m teaching about design thinking or problem solving, I am most interested in activating them rather than simply handing them a set of tools.

I guess it’s a bit like how my Dad taught me to use a broom. The tool actually isn’t going to do a good job on its own. The methods for effective employment aren’t exactly intuitive, and they have to be adjusted to the particular context. There are competencies involved that go well beyond just a rigid series of steps (a flat blade) and require significant redundancy of structure and patterns of behavior that create apparent redundancies but are actually diversifying probes to kick up new and useful patterns of information until you can gather a sufficient quantity to make it easy to pick them up and make use of them or… in the case of sweeping a room… toss them in the trash.

How might you employ the metaphor of a sweeping broom? I’m genuinely interested in hearing about it.

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