Writing a narrative on User Research

This is the second project for theory class, and it feels like it’s the tenth. The pace at AC4D has been exhilarating and exhausting, and without a doubt it’s been educational. In theory class we’ve dived deep into several readings, and after each set of readings, we’ve been tasked to create a comic to illustrate the concepts learned. This has been a fantastic device as it forces us to read for understanding, synthesize the concepts across a range of authors, and exercise our creative and communication skills through developing an aesthetically pleasing and rationally sound argument through narrative. For the rest of this post, I’m going to unpack just what this all means and what I learned along the way. I hope it’s helpful to you.

The first set of readings or which we made a comic was due early September, and we read six pieces by six different authors’ all along the theme of a designer’s responsibility in society. The assignment was our first, and the learning curve was pretty steep, as Jon, our instructor, often chose to be more enigmatic about defining requirements rather than prescriptive about how to do the assignment. I for one failed miserably on the presentation given I talked about the process of designing the comic much more than I mentioned anything about theory or the narrative itself. This time around, I incorporated most all of the feedback and wish-I-hads into my project. More about that later.


Luckily, our second assignment was more or less the same as the first but with a different set of readings.

  1. Do the reading
  2. Write and illustrate a comic that both tells a narrative (replete with conflict and resoution) and ALSO communicates clearly each of the author’s positions.*
  3. Develop the final draft of the comic in Adobe Illustrator
  4. Post the comic with a blog post of about ~1000 words online.
  5. Present the comic in class for critique.

*In particular, Jon requested that we explore how each author would engage users in design research. Since the writings could be interpreted to cover a much wider range of topics than just design research, this bit of focusing criteria helped define a clearer choice of paths to take.)

As I said, this is essentially the same project as the first, and, in a school where there’s another new project every other day, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to iterate and improve on a particular project, especially one that utilizes so many important skills like theory analysis, drawing, illustration, visual communication, story-telling, presentation, and finally writing (this blog post right here in fact.)

The readings we did this time around included:

  • William Gaver – Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty
  • Donald Norman – Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf
  • Jon Kolko – The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation
  • Liz Sanders & George Simmons – A Social Vision for Value co-creation in Design
  • Paul Dourish – What we talk about when we talk about context

The theme was more than anything about user research, though each writing touched on several other topics. Kolko’s article argued for gaining access to the boardroom for designers, Dourish discussed the depths of phenomenological and positivist world-views and their impact on contextual definition in computer science, and Norman spoke largely about innovation rather than user-research in detail. Nonetheless, the common thread was there, and it made for a rich set of articles.

In approaching the assignment, one of the greatest difficulties is both in synthesizing the author’s arguments so their perspectives can be lenses for the same conversation. The assignment is to develop a narrative, and what’s worse for a narrative than incoherence. Developing a sense for how these authors could dialogue together without talking about separate subjects was therefore the first challenge I set out to do in my own process.

To do this, I used a mix of mind-mapping and affinity diagramming. My version of affinity diagramming in this sense was to review my notes and highlight what I felt were the most important points each author made in their article. I then reviewed the different authors’ points side by side and started discerning themes and grouping.

On the other hand, once I had some themes written down, such as “Creativity of the user”, or “Role of innovation”, I wrote each author’s initials in a circle around that theme and wrote down each thing that author said about that point, if anything was said at all. This activity was more like mind-mapping or brainstorming.

After I had my author’s points synthesized and clarified around several themes, I tackled the question of narrative. This was somewhat easy for me. Ever since we started at AC4D, I’ve heard people talk about the challenges of convincing those with power to invest in user design research. With this in mind, I decided I would write out a narrative about a company that experienced challenges in the marketplace and decided to pursue user design research for the first time. In this scenario, a single person would be the advocate for design research, and they would both be inspired by the many arguments for it and also have to make the argument themselves to their board.

This approach both helped me learn the readings and also helped me prepare to make a case for user research investment in a boardroom.

Next, I needed the details of the narrative. After some brainstorming, I started mixing and matching ideas that I liked including educational settings like a school district (not a boardroom at all, I know, but it was a contender for winning narrative), and the corporate boardroom. I “compromised”, though really it feels like a total win, and decided to write about an education technology corporation. I personally love languages, and so I made it even more interesting for myself by making this company focused on language learning software.

Thus was born my comic strip.

Over the next 48 hours, I spent about 35 of them working on the story, deciding which drawing style I’d use, storyboarding, script-writing, hand-drawing, doing digital illustration in Adobe Illustrator, and finessing the format and composition. It’s been grueling.

That being said, I’m very proud of my work. I know that it could be better. It can always be better. But I invested so much effort, and I have pretty much only worked and not slept for the last 24 hours.

I love the theme of language ed tech that came to the surface. I love that I worked so hard to make my pretty amateur drawings at least a bit more polished. I love that there’s so much detail and there’s even a couple plot twists in such a short story. I love the character, Sarah, who came to the surface – she really seems striking to me. She’s courageous, compassionate, and dedicated, and she embodies many of the values I admire. It’s no surprise of course given she’s my creation, but then again, sometimes we don’t let those values come to the surface, and luckily they did here.

I learned a lot from this project. I learned about great theory related to user research, co-design, using cultural probes, and the intersections and implications of philosophical world-views in computer science. I’m well over 1000 words now, so if you want to know about those topics, you’ll need to look those articles up yourself, (or read my comic.) What I perhaps have valued the most from this project was the learning developed through rigorous creative work. Creative works requires the most varied and highest level of skills and cognitive skills, and it’s been taxing to say the least to fit about 100 pages of dense theory into a comic strip narrative. Nonetheless, I look forward to the next time.

Note: I set up my comic below as a gallery. Click the first image, and it will open in a black box on the screen. There are navigation buttons that appear on the bottom of the slide when you hover over the bottom. Use those navigation buttons to scroll from page to page rather than going in and out of the media files. Thank you for reading.