When in darkness, follow the light
For our Design, Society and Public Sector class, we read articles by Donald Norman, Jon Kolko, Paul Dourish, Liz Sanders and Bill Gaver. The articles provided perspectives on the place design research has in innovation, and the importance of including end users to be – not only the subject of the research – but also a key collaborator in the activities that make part of the research methodology.
For this second assignment, we were tasked to illustrate in the form of a story, the key points of view of these five authors.
Norbert is a mechanic from the quiet and small village of Middletown. One day, right after dinner, he was working on his truck when he saw something fell from the sky.
He walked a couple of miles and reached a big crater. A huge meteorite had crashed and, with the impact, had burst into thousands of pieces. To Norbert’s surprise, around the crater left by the impact, he found a few pieces of branches and trunks that appeared to light up as if they were lamps, odd sound waves were also transmitted right when Norbert approached one of the branches. It appeared like when in contact with a piece of meteorite, a piece of wood would become energized and made it emit light and sound.
After a few tests and experiments, Norbert thought of designing some cool, never before seen musical instruments. He was convinced that the village would love his new inventions. He announced the news to the rest of Middletown and everyone seemed excited for his discovery but, much to his surprise, they had no interest in acquiring any of these instruments.
Donald Norman claims that technology comes first, designers and users assign meaning and use to it after, therefore, technologists are indispensable and drive revolutionary innovation. In the other hand, designers only drive incremental innovation by engaging with users at the end.
Dorbert, the village’s electrician and philosophy teacher was one of the few people that felt truly intrigued by the discovery – He was certain that a source of power like the one Norbert discovered could be of great use only if it was applied in a way that corresponds to the needs of the people in Middletown.
Dorbert decides to reach out to Kolbert, the village’s private detective.
Kolbert, the detective – throughout his lifetime, has learned that by immersing himself in a particular context and understanding the people’s struggles and motivations can, not only help define problems in a particular space, but also, help detect opportunities and potential areas of improvement. It is by doing this immersion and synthesizing his findings, that Kolbert discovers a particular insight that he had not been aware of: A large part of the Middletown population have to walk across the woods every night when coming back from the factory outside of their village. This made villagers feel anxious and paranoid.
Paul Dourish claims that it’s challenging to translate observations from participatory research into technical requirements, but elemental to adapt to an ever changing environment. Participatory research is helpful to get a sense of what should be taken into consideration when designing for a person’s context.
In “the Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation”, Kolko claims that it is by immersing oneself into an end user’s context, and focusing on gathering data related to the user’s behavior and emotion, that makes design research so valuable for innovation.
Inspired by Kolbert’s findings, the village’s government representative, Gabert, decided to reach out to several villagers. He asked 10 of them to draw and describe the favorite and least favorite part of their routine for one week. The results were interesting, and consistent with detective Kolbert’s findings, most of the villagers’ least favorite part of the day had to do with their commute back from the factory . With these artifacts the villagers handed to him, Gabert was able to familiarize himself better with the people from Middletown and get a bigger understanding of needs that were not being met involving their commute to their village from work.
Designers engage end users to participate in activities that help them visually document their environments, interactions and relationships. With these probes in hand, designers gain empathy for their users and, according to Gaver, are able to “predict with confidence which systems (their users) might prefer”.
During his immersion, Kolbert was able to empathize with the villagers as they walked back from work every day for a week. Listening to ominous sounds and screams, and darkness so absolute, no torch could light up more than a couple of inches out. On the same note, with his artifacts, Gabert was able to get a sense of what the villagers inherently hoped and wished for: a feeling of safety when walking back home from the factory.
With all of these findings at hand, Lizbert, the village’s architect, brought 10 other villagers together for a creative session. By having everyone ask themselves “How can we improve the commute experience for Middletown villagers when walking back home from work?” Lizbert tasked the villagers to describe how their ideal commute to the factory looked like. “Safe”, “light”, “comfort”, were just a few of the words that villagers came up with when describing their ideal road.
According to Liz Sanders, people are creative beings and seek an outlet to express their creativity in diverse ways.Continuously involving end users in the design process gives room to uncover problems that users didn’t perceive as a need or opportunity before. This makes the collective design process more engaging and precious.
Dorbert, who was part of these creative sessions, suggested how these findings could be addressed by Norbert’s newly discovered source of light. By applying an array of purple meteorites to the roots of the trees surrounding the walk to the factory and back, the trees will light up the path, providing a sense of security for factory workers, and the beautiful music coming from the trunks will numb down the ominous sounds coming from the rest of the forest.
Creative collaborative techniques and a deep analysis of a community’s way of life, which are methodologies used in design research, helped Middletown villagers improve an aspect of their daily lives that they were so used to, they forgot it was a daily nuisance. This is how Middletown used design to follow the light while being in the dark.