Candidate Moves in Design Thinking

It has been estimated that there are more positions in chess than there are atoms in our solar system. However, at any given time a player is only allowed to make a single move. A single move to enable them to navigate the minefield of complexity in front of them. How does a chess player do this? What implications can this have for design?

When scouring the 64 squares in front of them a chess player is not evaluating every possible move available to them, this would be insane. Instead, good chess players rely upon the principle of candidate moves.

Candidate moves are a collection of moves (usually around 3 or 4) that the chess player has determined to have a suitable level of merit to require a further focus of their attention.

A chess diagram showing a 2D image of a chess position with arrows drawn on to show piece movement

Your move, which path do you choose?

In his excellent book “How to choose a chess move”, Andrew Soltis notes that by move 20 of a chess game a player on average has 38 legal options available to them. Soltis goes on to demonstrate how a good chess player is able to reduce this large decision tree through the application of a method called candidate cues:

  • Tactics: Immediate threats on the board (both offensive and defensive) that must be dealt with;
  • General Principles: Sound principles of play, based on experience, will often indicate to a player a possible good move, for example protecting your king;
  • Positional Desirability: If no tactics present themselves then the strategic positioning of your forces for the long term can throw light onto a potential move;
  • Consistency: If previously you have been engaged in a specific plan then it makes sense to continue down that road (unless your latest assessment has identified a flaw in your plan)
  • Problem Pieces: If nothing else the player may survey their forces and realise that they have a “problem child” that must be improved or removed.

Thus through the application of rules, pattern recognition and experience, a chess player is able to control and harness an incredibly complex environment and determine a course of action.

Candidate Design Moves
Sound familiar? We may not identify such an obvious framework for tackling design problems but certainly the above principles are used daily by me and my colleagues for shortlisting potential design solutions.

In the current movement towards lean methods of working, designers will consistently find themselves under tighter timescales with development teams demanding “the answer” sooner rather than later.

Fast sketching, ideation and co-creation workshops are all popular and invaluable tools for iterating quickly and pushing forward design thinking around a particular topic. I’m sure many of us can relate to the idea of developing large amounts of design ideas in a short space of time with the intention of throwing away 80-90% of them.

Failing to candidate
What I find interesting about the candidate moves concept is how noticeable it is when it is not adopted. I have lost count of the number of chess games I have lost through the immediate impulse move. When looking back in hindsight, I nearly always can attribute the loss to a point in time when I say the immortal words:

I never considered anything else

The great Russian chess players often refer to this as the “programmed move”. How applicable is this flaw to our early design discussions, particularly when we consider the work context of a minimal viable product and a wall of half drawn sketches?

How often, through the need for expediency, are we drawn to the obvious candidate? The one that deals with all of the short term immediate problems but has some positional long term flaw? The move that worked in the last game so why shouldn’t it work in this one?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a strong advocate for lean design working methods but my question would be this:

  • On your last project how many true candidate moves did you really consider?

Admittedly your design team could just “fail fast and pivot” but in my opinion, a strong set of candidates can allow you to spot potential pivots before they happen.

A strong candidate set
In a chess game, a strong set of candidate moves will often present a player with a range of paths. The risky move with high reward. The unknown move that has never been tried and leads to an uncertain result. The quiet move leading to strategic positioning. Any or all of these moves could be good.

The same is true of our early design discussions. Im not advocating the risky solution over the tried and tested. What I am advocating is the identification of a number of potential design directions and a fair assessment of each.

Every time I have seen a successful product launch it usually had a broad set of potential candidate moves early on in the product design phase.

In my opinion we all become become better designers when we avoid the “obvious choice” and consider all the paths available to us. Embrace your candidate moves and become better at what you do.

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Candidate Moves in Design Thinking

  1. Excellent post Jon. There are always alternatives. At the design stage we may have a desire (or have pressure commercially) for how we plan an interaction to play out. Though we can only ever have a reasonable guess at how someone might actually do it when presented with a decision to make a move. Ideally we have to design for multiple scenarios to be played out by multiple people. Fast, collaborative, divergent thinking in teams of two is really useful here to generate lots of ideas beyond the obvious. These ideas should then be tested early on before narrowing down. But I then you know that – I’ve seen you do it 😉

    • Thanks Steve! I found the chess reference a useful framing, particularly the candidate cues as a filtering method for design directions. I’m sure we will talk some more over a cup of tea

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