Is there a universal definition of common sense?

One of the ways I would describe a successful outcome of design thinking is "ingenious common sense". It seems that we want to develop a solution and that it might take some work to get to, but all along it turns out to be common sense. When we encounter something which makes us question - why would someone make/do this in  this way, such as my sophomore year dorms; two buildings in snowy Vermont which were connected by walking through the bathrooms. We can contemplate if this was some sort of forced co-ed mingling or an architect's  locker room revenge, but in the end it just seemed a bit stupid and certainly far from common sense. 

I am sure we can all come up with situations where we thought, "Someone actually paid someone to design this (product, service, place)???" and no doubt we have been on the opposite end too, in which we have forgotten something that should  have been obvious.  Now that I have been living in a different culture for the last four years I find myself asking this question everyday. I ask"Why do they do it this way, it does not make sense" but then maybe it just does not make sense to me.

Certainly we must allow for differences in cultures, not to mention poor choices.  How much do different cultures vary in their definition of common sense? Or do they just value it differently?  How do you gauge common sense?


Tags: common, cultural, design, differences, sense, thinking

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common sense is the least common sense
Hi Kristina!
Nice discussion! Personally I'm not a big fan of common-sense, as Simon says, its not that common. Perhaps instead its about designers allowing enough room within a design or the design process to allow people to make their own sense of a product, system or service.

This could be in the way design allows people to customise their products or experience, like Nokia's Xpress-on covers did for mobile phones in the 90s. Or it might be allowing people to add their own layers of functionality to a product as the App Store does for iphones? I know Nico Morelli (http://nicomorelli.wordpress.com/) does a lot work in the area of understanding how service design can support or strike an effective balance both economies of scale ('common production') and economies of scope ('common perception'). I fear that's a gross simplification of what are incredibly complex areas, but hopefully I'm making sense. :-)

I guess the Nokia and iPhone examples are interesting in themselves because I suppose they are after market ways in which people can customise their products and/or services. The conventional alternative being to involve people earlier in the design process, before the product goes to market and by allowing them to make sense of the product or service when it is in an earlier stage of development... I still think in either case, the idea of deriving 'common sense' from either of these two approaches is more of a 'common compromise' or at best something of a utilitarian hypothesis.

I think ultimately as people we are all striving to create our own sense of autonomy and purpose and - playing devil's advocate - I'm not convinced that a blanket definition of what a bunch of experts think should be common to users or within the design of a product of service will ever be a particularly sustainable way of doing business. Besides and as you allude yourself, giving users the room to customise their experience takes some of the pressure off the design team having to get it perfect by themselves...

If you're interested, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance does a pretty sound job of dispelling the myth of common sense or at least critiquing it robustly.

Thanks for raising this discussion - it is a really valuable concept for designers to dwell on. Do you not think as designers and design thinkers we can do better than aspire to common sense?

Thanks,
Ferg :-)
Kristina, to your question "How much do different cultures vary in their definition of common sense? Or do they just value it differently?" -- my question back would be, why do you think it is culture that might have an affect on common sense. Even within the same culture, what is 'common sense' to a 50 yr old man might not be so for a 15 yr old.

You do bring out an interesting topic though. Before you can "gauge" common sense, you first have to define it. And so the question now becomes - Can we even define common sense or is it so nebulous and dynamic that like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, common sense just cannot be determined.
As Simon so succinctly put it, common sense is the least common sense! All of your comments raise some thought provoking questions. Ned's idea to define common sense is a good starting point, since we all probably have different ideas of what it means to us, and I agree that culture is not the only dividing line in how we may define it.

Fergus' comment on common sense falling victim to common compromise is a good warning to avoid the risk of the bland middle ground of a solution, and it brings me back to Ned's suggestion of a definition. Common sense does not have to mean the lowest common denominator but rather what makes sense as a solution, maybe something that does not create more problems than it solves. So what is it about the common aspect, is something which is common or shared by all necessarily the wrong direction? I agree in not wanting to try to be all things to all people, as it can result in not being anything special or making an impact in a desired way.

Maybe common sense is better reserved for situations in which it clearly does not exist, as the question of common sense for me occurs when something should function in a less frustrating way, like the cup holders in my old Subaru. When holding a cup, the cup and its holder blocked the heat/ac vents, heating controls and radio controls. All around a frustrating design and one that I think no one tested before they actually made a decision. Not testing definitely leaves room for "common sense" errors.

So what is common sense exactly then? Fergus' question to aspire to something better is valid, with common sense we are not looking for mass appeal mediocrity, but rather something more. Thanks for the comments, they have me thinking....
Kristina, here is something else to massage your grey cells with. Is common sense a "personal" trait or is it a communal behavior that got accepted by the individual in the process of growing up? :-). Goes back to the question of why there is (and cannot be) a "standard" for common sense.
“So what is common sense exactly then?”
“Is common sense a "personal" trait or is it a communal behavior that got accepted by the individual in the process of growing up?”

I think Bourdieu’s theory of practice is helpful for understanding ‘common sense’. He argued that humans action is not a product of rational thought, but rather habitual dispositions that have a practical rationality within social spaces. Fields of practice, such as the family, religion, education, politics, the arts etc., are held together by groups with a common language, skill set, and sense for what the practice is all about. Differences exist, e.g. debates in the arts over pure or commercial art, but there is a common, unstated understanding amongst members, the feeling that what happens within the field is worth arguing about. The idea that this is felt, rather than clearly thought, is important, because the whole premise of the Bourdieu’s argument was that individuals embody social structures in such a way that otherwise arbitrary symbols, conventions and hierarchies seem natural (similar territory to Foucault). Think of the way that you know the appropriate distance to stand from someone (which changes according to your relation to that person) without consciously thinking about it. This background understanding is the common understanding of the field, and it is not able to be articulated or defined, in the same way that you cannot define the logic of a gut feeling.

A generic, amorphous concept of culture is really unhelpful for understanding this phenomenon because it plays out in the particular conditions of social interaction. Individuals are also involved in many fields at the same time; the family, the workplace, friends, education, cultural production (the arts). These can exist in tiered relation to each other, but each retains its own internal structure and logic. This shows in the different ways we carry ourselves and the language we use with different people. An interesting aspect that Bourdieu never spent much time on is the impact of material things, like buildings and equipment, the products of design. You need to go back to Heidegger to find an exploration of how objects effect our sense of ‘being’, but there is also good contemporary work on this by people like Elizabeth Shove and Don Idhe (Donald Norman covers similar territory, but I think Ihde’s work is better).

What is the significance for design? Well it means that designers should be concerned to understand how their interventions will play out within practices, both symbolically and materially. I’m not simply talking about commercial success either. Design and technology can change the ‘state of play’ within fields. Luther would not have initiated the Reformation unless the printing press had made decimating information cheaper, or a printing industry who could make a profit from controversy. Current practices of transportation (constituted by a vast system of infrastructure and symbolic production) give people an invested expectation in the capacity for fast, convenient movement – a real barrier to developing sustainment (rather than ‘sustainable development’). Practices of food consumption that demand high meat consumption, packaging and refrigerated storage are just as problematic.

Design itself is a practice with a ‘common sense’ too, so in order to address some of the issues mentioned above its practitioners really need to examine the nature of the work they have become so invested in. For instance, many designers valorise their role as innovators without acknowledging that innovation is a contingent good. Innovation is absolutely vital for continuous, compound economic growth, which is absolutely not something that can be sustained. These issues are explored on these same terms in Tony Fry’s recent book ‘Design Futuring’.
More good questions, thanks for the input! While a number of questions have been raised since the original post, it seems what is emerging is that common sense does not have one clear definition and that one clear definition may not even be what we need. If as designers we want to create value we need to understand the context in which we are trying to create value. Depending on our definition, common sense may or may not play a role in how we first understand the context and then provide a solution.

Looking at Ned's follow-up, he addresses not only what is common sense, but from where it originates. If our definition is a "wisdom of the crowds" type than perhaps what we call common sense is something learned from our environment, on the other hand if we see it as a characteristic that an individual can be seen as having than maybe it is something more internal, though even in this case though it could still be a learned behavior.

Matthew raises a number of questions, but one thing he wrote in particular touched upon something I've been thinking about a great deal lately, and that is the relation of common sense to habitual practices. In some cases we are so good at adapting and becoming habituated to a particular situation that we don't realize that there is a better way to do something. If common sense leads us to a certain level of comfort and a particular pattern of behavior this can be a good thing, but if we can break beyond it to raise the bar then we have achieved something ( at least until the new becomes habitual and it is time to change again ;)
Here is a perspective of common sense from the engineering/manufacturing industry. Engineers can get very analytical in their thinking and propose some very ingenious solutions to problems in process. They maybe so complex and ultimately may not even work. However there are times when a technician would come in and give a very simple solution to the problem and it would work. Here the technician uses his experience in the process to find a simple solution. I believe this is common sense or prior knowledge. The engineers however can excel in situations where the concept is entirely new and their analytical thinking can uncover the root cause and the solution would be based on scientific understanding. And here also this would be common sense as far as the engineer is concerned.
Very interesting discussion and interesting comments.
Daniel's comments address two issues which I believe are important to consider:
1. An overcomplicated solution ( which could stem from not asking the right questions to begin with)
2. Bringing in those with different points of view and experiences to get different results

The overcomplicated issue reminds me of the story about the truck which was stuck under a bridge and how they were going to remove it. Highway engineers and many experts came to assess the situation and try to resolve the blocked road, when in the end, a young girl suggested letting air out of the tires to lower the truck in order to create enough space to drive away. It may be an urban legend, but like Daniel's example it reminds us to look outside of our area of expertise to others who may shed light on a challenge in new ways.

Common sense in this case may be cultural, but from a culture based on our training and profession rather than our geography.

Thanks for the continuing discussion!
Dear Kristina,

According to following links :

1. http://mobeeknowledge.ning.com/forum/topics/human-system-biology-hs... - HUMAN SYSTEM BIOLOGY (HSB)-BASED KM 2.0 MAP™ TEMPLATE AND ITS USAGE Showing in brief : Human System Biology-based KM System Development comprising of KM Tools(Managing by Senses indicating Peripheral Nerves System level orLower Consciousness) - KM Process Frameworks (Managing by Mind indicating Central Nerves System or Brain level or Medium Consciousness) - KM Standards (Managing by Value & Culture indicating DNA level or Higher Consciousness)

2. http://mobeeknowledge.ning.com/forum/topics/we-are-the-knowledge-hy... - WE ARE THE KNOWLEDGE : HYBRID DEFINITION OF KNOWLEDGE  Knowledge is Human Enlightenment Agent (HEA) evolved as emergent behavior inside human body as complex (adaptive) system since beginning, having Consciousness* and free will (mind and value) as well as behaving dynamically as Subject acting to transform physical realities into Data and Information toward higher level and maturity of Knowledge itself and beyond

3. http://mobeeknowledge.ning.com/forum/topics/blooms-taxonomy-knowled... - BLOOM’S TAXONOMY, KNOWLEDGE AND KM REVISITED : SHOULD DIKW MODEL TRANSFORMED INTO DI-KW MODEL?  Based by special judgment that common sense is mainly managed by Mind indicating Central Nerves System or Brain level or Medium Consciousness included Comprehension-Application-Analysis (Cognitive Domain), Responding to Phenomena-Valuing (Affective Domain) and Guided Response-Mechanism-Complex Response (Psychomotor Domain

CONCLUSION : Common Sense is the function of Human Knowledge derived from Medium Consciousness generated from Mind Brain acting to transform physical realities into Data and Information toward higher level and maturity of Knowledge itself and beyond, carrying out through learning domain included Comprehension-Application-Analysis (Cognitive Domain), Responding to Phenomena-Valuing (Affective Domain) and Guided Response-Mechanism-Complex Response (Psychomotor Domain)
I think I agree with what I understand of what you are saying. The problem for me is that we use very different language to point at similar phenomenon. In my language, people use common sense based on what they see at a particular time and in a particular space. It's a function of their biology and their unique personal history.

Until the internet unique personal history was bounded by time and space constraints. With the internet both barriers are quickly melting away. The result is that for the first time in history masses of people have the opportunity that was previously limited to various tops of various pyramids. They are exposed to fundamentally different world views of the same fundamental reality.

That fundamental reality is that we are all going to die. Every person on the planet has to deal with that existential reality. I think that he great historitcal divide on that central fact is between "East" and "West." My unique personal history comes from the great "EuroAmerican" tribe. The central meme of that tribe is that humans are fundamentally "evil." I don't pretend to understand the fundamental "Eastern" view, but my sense is that is not true in the great "Asian" tribe.

At any rate, the narrative I use is that people use common sense given what they see. What they see is produced by their interactions in small groups. The small groups join and separate into tribes. The tribes get larger and if successful formalize their world views into "the way we do things." Perhaps captured by the idea of conventional wisdom. As development continues that conventional wisdom becomes law. The law then effects masses of behavior for those subject to those laws.

At it's base decisions can be usefully understood as the result of a risk/benefit model. What makes it a bit counter intuitive is that decisions are based on minimizing risk not maximizing benefits. In natural language it could be captured by the notion that decisions are made on the basis of fear and greed. The real driver is fear.

Since risks and benefits are the product of perception, what seems "stupid" or worse "irrational" from the outside turns out to be very "sensible" from the inside looking out. It points to the critical role played by empathy.
As more people comment we are saying the wide range of interpretations on the definition of common sense. Md Santo shared some scientific and more academic interpretations of what common sense could be and Michael J's comments define common sense from the user's POV.

What is common sense in action or design to me, may not be to you and vice-versa. (Reference my car's cup holders placed to block all my controls-my definition provides that no common sense was used in that design) Not only are we likely to have differing viewpoints on what common sense behavior is, but how the term should be defined itself.

If this is true with common sense, then what other terms are we perhaps, casually using with an assumed definition, a definition interpreted by us, which is very likely to have a different interpretation by someone else? What can we be doing to make sure we dig deep enough in asking the right sort of questions?

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