In our Interaction Design Research and Synthesis course we just completed a two week design research cycle. The research process began with our research team (Bhavini Patel, Jacob Rader, and Scott Gerlach) constructing a focus statement and research plan which guided our explorative process and culminated with a research presentation.
The Value of Focus
Our research focus statement:
Identify and understand the emotional and cultural factors that influence the food behaviors in low income communities.
This focus statement took on several roles throughout our two week process. In the beginning, it served as a constraint that allowed us to start making practical decisions: geographical boundaries, categorical selection of participants, how to initiate interaction, etc. This allowed us to move from ambiguity to action very quickly. As we engaged with participants, the focus statement also served as an important grounding: helping us recognize when to guide conversations and interactions when they strayed too far. Later, as we started processing our sessions with participants, the focus served as a concrete statement to push up against and frame our research through which was crucial when deciding which stories to tell. It’s accurate to say that our relationship with our focus statement had emotional overtones: at times we felt disconnected and unmotivated by it, at others we were grateful for it’s existence and direction.
The type of ethnographic research we were striving for was aimed at establishing the kinds of interaction with research participants that encourage them to teach us about themselves: roughly akin to a short term mentor-ship. In retrospect: it’s important as a researcher to recognize how format affects interaction. While interviews and conversation based research are insightful, they are also incomplete and are heavily weighted toward what people can and are willing to externalize about their motivations and behavior.
One of the early takeaways for us, as researchers, is to seek out opportunities to learn from participants in their natural habitats by actually doing activities associated to the area of research. While no form of research will fully capture the human condition, this sort of contextual inquiry offers a much richer delve into participants lives than interviews alone because of the opportunity for observation of behavior and action-based queues.
In our two week delve into food behavior in low income communities we were able to get participants into context on several occasions but usually only after we had established rapport through an interview process. Intuitively, we all thought that the key to getting there sooner was in the first few minutes of interaction with participants. In future research, it will be important to experiment and practice how we initiate interaction with people.
Probably more than any specific technique takeaways, this research process exposed us to the power of research without rigorous control. The purpose of this research is not to prove or disprove, it’s to inform our intuitive understanding of a specific community and the people who make up that community. In that sense, approaching research as a process of participant guided exploration is a powerful difference from a traditional view of research as a process of differentiation and information extraction. More practically, people specifically know a hell of a lot more about their own views of the world and the environments they live in than design researchers. Putting them in a position to teach that perspective (consciously and contextually) is powerful and necessary if the designer hopes to build an intuitive pool to synthesize ideas from.
On a somewhat related note, conducting research through such open-ended and personal interactions is a subjective and attached process on purpose. Being involved makes our connection to the people and places we are designing for more useful. Again, we are building an intuitive model to synthesize from. As humans we do this all the time, we reference people and experiences in our lives and we imagine them in new contexts. My grandpa passed away years ago, but I still reference a rich mental model of him all the time and I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning from him. Much the same, the designer builds a rich web of mental models through research that can be re-contextualized in the synthesis process to produce new ideas.
This does create a somewhat uncomfortable conversation about the idea of deliverable design research in separation from design synthesis. If the design researcher’s process of putting themselves in context with participants is described as a building a rich web of mental objects and associations, what they deliver to others by simply externalizing that process probably most appropriately described as a wonky, rusty mobile of said objects. If learning is largely experiential, and the point of design research is to build a rich intuitive base for synthesis, isn’t it an obvious conclusion that design research and design synthesis lose something essential when they are handed off like a baton in a race?
-Scott (on behalf of Bhavini and Jacob)