#34 On the Kobayashi Maru

Pants. I put them on every weekday


At the Design Leadership conference in Seattle last month, someone mentioned doing Kobayashi Maru thought exercises with their team.  In case that doesn’t ring a bell, allow me to explain. In the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru exercise is used to evaluate young officers. Its purpose is to put them in a no-win situation and observe how they react.


In an attempt to add some mental novelty to our fortnightly Design Jamborees, I tried thinking up a design-oriented version of the no-win thought exercise. Here’s what I came up with:


You are Head of Design at InstaYak, a mobile messaging company. You have native iOS and Android apps. Ten years ago when the company first started out, 20,000 custom emoji were made and organized encyclopedically in an extended library. The hypothesis had been that “Those young people love emoji” and the extended library would be a differentiator. That did not come to pass. Users generally found the wealth of available images overwhelming. Currently, less than 5% of users access the extended emoji. 


That 5%, however, also includes a dedicated user base of around 500 low income families with nonverbal autistic children who use your app as a cost-effective “augmentative communication application” (ACA). 


This week, The United States government demanded all message logs for 500 users (zero overlap with the families with nonverbal children). They allege that a terrorist organization has been using your extended emoji library to send coded messages in your app. 


What do you do?


Our experience went approximately according to my expectations. The initial discussion focused exclusively on trying to outsmart the problem by redefining the parameters or otherwise coming up with a technological solution. This is a very human response and is the actual approach used by Kirk in the original presentation of the Kobayashi Maru exercise (basically, he cheats). It’s incredibly painful to make these sorts of choices, so we try to evade them. But in the end, you can either deliberately make them, or you can just allow things to happen.