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The Dot Loop, the simplest process possible


I’m going to present you something obvious. Why? I think it’s interesting exactly because it’s so obvious that usually nobody thinks about it, and it’s dismissed easily. But nonetheless, if you start thinking that this concept exists it can help you a lot in many problem-solving activities and you’ll start seeing it everywhere.


The computer modeled upon Von Neumann’s architecture is basically a black box with a CPU and a memory that processes an input an returns an output, iteratively. The user centered design process in the ISO 13407 standard is a four phases loop: specify context, specify requirements, design solutions, evaluate. The problem-solving approach of Action Research is split in three iterative phases: plan, action and result. Agile methodologies have the concept of sprint, where you start with a sprint planning, you do a few days of development and then you end with a retrospective. Looking at a different discipline, in biology many systems are based on the concept of stimulus, elaboration and reaction, where in an amoeba we have a chemical process while in a cat the whole loop is mediated by the nervous system. And yes, about the nervous system, you can easily see the same pattern again in each and every neuron, and within the neuron in every synapse and down to every chemical receptor. In cybernetics you have the analogous feedback concept.

Once you start, you can go on with many different examples from different disciplines just looking around you.

The Dot Loop

From those examples you can notice some interesting details:

  • they are all loops
  • they exist at very different levels, often one inside the other (think about a living being and its own cells).
  • they can be all synthesized in three phases
  • every loop is short in its context

Hence, we can abstract it and call it the Dot Loop: do, observe, think. This loop exists everywhere you see something that works.

DOT Loop

Why is this important? For three reasons:

  • It’s a baseline for processes: any process you are going to use or build needs to have those three levels, nothing less than those, like a dot in geometry.
  • It’s a validator for processes: if the process you are looking or the one you are building is missing one of those steps, then something is either wrong or hidden behind something. If it’s hidden, it’s better to understand why and make it more explicit.
  • It’s the minimal building block: you can’t have nothing less than this, but also if you have something right like this then you need to go deeper, because it’s not enough, it’s too abstract and needs to get practical. For example you can say that one phase is “Design”, but unless you know how you are going to do that (card sorting, wireframes, visual layouts, prototypes) then it’s too abstract to be useful.

It’s very interesting because it’s something that inside a process can be repeated multiple times at multiple levels. Think for example the sprint in the Scrum Agile process: at the top level you have the building of a software: the client asks something, the team builds it, and it gets released back to the client. But inside that very high level (and not very useful) explanation you have a lot of iterations, again matching the Dot Loop, and inside each one of those each user story is prepared, developed and accepted. Again a Dot Loop.

Notice also that the starting point isn’t fixed. You might think that a project starts with the Observe phase, or analysis. But from another point of view, the clients starts with a request, so it’s a Do phase. And usually you can go back the loop more and more, without being able to define a starting point.

Getting practical

But how can something so obvious be useful for you? Very few companies talk publicly about their internal problems, but there are a few common situations that you might find familiar.

Think about a company starting to deploy a new intranet. In a typical scenario, it’s going to choose the tecnology, building the service and then releasing it one day with a communication through mail. As you can see, it’s missing a critical step that’s easily spotted once you see this through the Dot Loop: there’s no feedback, no following Observe phase after the release and probably not even tests with final users during the development of the application.

Another good example is made when companies see the new world of social media and start to use them straight away, creating pages on Facebook, accounts on Twitter and starting to push content through them. Even if the loop goes on, it’s missing the Think phase in between, that would have aligned the company strategy with the correct communication.

Think about the waterfall model, that leads so often to mediocre products. This basically happens because it’s like making one single Dot Loop, instead that taking the output feedback from the Do part and analyzing it to perform a following new action. Even when the feedback is take into account, often it’s just “check if we reached our objectives” and nothing after that. Instead creating a virtuous cycle is the correct way to both solve problems and evolve existing solutions.

As you might guess, the list could go on a lot and every one of those problems could be avoided understanding the Dot Loop, since it’s the minimal possible process.

3 Responses to The Dot Loop, the simplest process possible

  1. By Gian on December 14, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Dear Foll, the best relation you can make with your Dot Loop in the scientifc field is with embodied cognition.
    The embodied cognition is (not only in my opinion) the most important biological and cognitive model for the process of knowing.
    I suggest all designer to read something about this theory that it’s also so important for Interaction Design (see, for example Andy Clark).
    In synthesis, in the embodied cognition the process of knowing is a loop between behavioural interaction and perception, between motor system and sensory system (see Francisco Varela).
    There isn’t a linear process. You can’t go out the loop. It’s the loop that produces a knowledge, creates a world.
    If you break the loop you break perception.
    So, it’s fondamental for the organizations create many opportunity of feedback, in several levels and process.
    Think to the organization of a group, of a process, of design as a cognitive loop it’s an important opportunity to nudge a process of groving efficency.
    In a complex and fast scenarious, as organizations and design, the best strategy is increase the internal and externa cognition of the group.

  2. By Davide Casali on December 14, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    You’re absolutely right. I just excluded embodied cognition because I thought it was a hard concept by itself, but that’s in many ways one of the underlying concept of the Dot Loop simplification: “if you break the loop you break perception”, and that’s true also for wider meanings of “perception”.
    Thanks for the hints to go in depth about this topic. 😉

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