Photo of a group of sheep with black sheep looking at the camera – from the blog post Pattern Hunting

Pattern Hunting

February 3, 2023

Have you ever played Wordle? The word guessing game, launched publicly in late 2021, quickly became immensely popular with millions playing daily by the end of January 2022. The game is a free and easy exercise in pattern hunting – identify which five letters go together to match the word of the day.

Pattern recognition describes the cognitive process of matching information from the environment with information stored in your memory. Essentially, we are all pattern hunters, instinctively organizing incoming stimuli according to past experience.

Aside from scratching an itch to make sense of puzzles, how can our natural tendency to seek patterns benefit – or hinder – good design?

Experience matters

Prior knowledge plays an important role when interpreting sensory information. The more experience you have, the quicker the processing speed.

Making quick decisions is important in games and sports. A hitter has milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing at a pitch and where it will cross the plate. In the moment, they cannot consciously decide to swing, but must act on instinct earned through repetition, visual cues, and past results.

A designer who has worked on websites for years will make dozens of decisions before a less experienced counterpart has finished their coffee. Patterns are quickly recognized because the experienced designer has repeatedly diagnosed and solved similar problems.

Then again, even with lots of practice, some players never learn to hit a curve ball.

Considering other points of view

A perspective that relies solely on the things one has personally done or seen illustrates the limits of experience in recognizing patterns. To make pattern hunting useful as a designer, we need to think beyond tactical deliverables – brand guides, social media channels, and websites – and consider human behavior.

Studying how a diverse collection of people interact with the things we’ve designed requires curiosity and empathy to recognize the patterns that really matter. We need to intentionally acquire knowledge of other perspectives and adjust accordingly.

When Wordle first came out, the color scheme for correct letters did not have sufficient contrast for colorblind or visually impaired people. An update allowed users to alter the color palette manually, making it ADA compliant.

For years, automobiles were primarily designed, built, and driven by men. As more women began to purchase and drive cars, changes had to be made to appeal to a less homogeneous customer base.

Outsourcing pattern recognition

Just as our brains instinctively recognize patterns in the world around us, computer algorithms are designed to do the same thing, but on a much larger scale. Whether it’s looking at financial data, photos, or speech, the ability of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to recognize patterns allows it to process information, make predictions, and make decisions in a way that is unparalleled in human history.

So, why do we need to learn how to hunt for patterns ourselves? I mean, that previous paragraph was written (almost) entirely by AI using a prompt in ChatGPT.

While AI is revolutionizing the way we approach solving complex problems, it excels at rapidly parsing only what exists. It is derivative. Prior to 2008, if you asked AI to create an image of the President of the United States, it would have produced a composite of a white man. Human beings may have tendencies, but they are endlessly surprising and skilled at creating new processes, services, and things.

Looking for outliers

The term outlier refers to anything that lies outside of normal experience. As Sesame Street taught us as children, one of these things is not like the others.

By the 1970s, Dutch elm disease had killed an estimated 40 million trees in the United States. When the city planted a new tree on my boulevard a few years ago, I was surprised they planted an elm. The new specimen is a disease-resistant elm, propagated from a massive local tree that survived the blight. Finding the outlier allowed urban foresters to reintroduce the stately tree to neighborhoods around the country.

New ideas come from identifying alternatives to the status quo. Paraphrasing Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Good designers tend to be outliers – the problem solvers who excel at spotting emerging trends in human behavior. By recognizing conventional patterns and expectations, they combine familiar ideas and materials in new ways to address unmet needs.

Breaking patterns

Pattern recognition is an important skill that helps us make sense of the world we live in. It allows people to reliably predict behaviors and outcomes.

To create better outcomes, designers need to study and understand existing patterns, as well as include diverse perspectives. The most predictable and perpetual pattern for generating new ideas – for breaking free from what has been done before – is to analyze, create, test, learn, correct, and try again.

Read more posts about human-centered design.

Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter

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