The Practical Maverick: A Design Research Coaster

I do not recommend riding the rollercoaster in the diagram below.  Instead, view the coaster in terms of our latest assignment for our AC4D Theory class. We were assigned to create a 2×2 axis which represents eight different design professionals point of view on the topic of design research.

I chose to rank and group these professionals on two different axis:

  1. Vertical Axis: Is the professionals work practical; in other words, can their work be put to use in the field, or is it more dense, theory-based, or philosophical (impractical).
  2. Horizontal Axis: Is the professionals’ work better described as “designing for” users or “designing with” users .

Each researcher is an individual cart on the coaster, listed by their last name. Going left to right:

  • Don Norman’s cart is alone, as his perspective is that of a provocateur. Norman thinks inventors should invent, designers should stay out of it, only making tweaks to the invented thing to make it user-friendly. He’s also self-doubting of his claim, leading to great discussion, but not much of practically in the field.
  • Gaver is different- I view him as the design-artist. He designs with potential users, but in his words, his method of involving cultural probes are geared toward designing for pleasure, not utility. I look forward to trying some of Gaver’s methods, but for this design student, less practical for social entrepreneurship work.

Finally, we come to the long connected cart of six different design professionals that are designing with and designing for, practical use. They are connected because they build on each other’s work, even though chronologically I have taken some liberty.

  • Dourish is the theorizing academic. His writing of “context” as an action, and of the value of “ordinariness” speaks his strong influence of each designer above him. Yet, as a dense academic, his work is not immediately applicable in the field. As we cross the threshold into practicality, I’ve placed Fulton-Suri and Forlizzi together; they share a penchant for user-centeredness and prototyping that can be practical, but when precisely these methods should be used are a bit unclear. Le Dantec is the applicable design academic, who has used the methods of the professionals around him to research the world of homelessness, with a rare combination of rigor, from both design research and traditional academic research methods.
  • And finally, Jon Kolko, the founder of AC4D in the lead cart. Hold your thoughts of unnecessary flattery, Kolko does not teach this class. Part of Kolko’s position here may be to the order in which we read these pieces- his was last. But last for a reason; Kolko synthesizes the work of those connected to him, and writes with a clarity that is cross-disciplined. He takes the theories of those below him, cuts the fat off the theory, and pulls the preceding carts closer intoo practical use.

Regardless of position, the six connected rollercoaster researchers who design with users (and are practical in the field) are those that will most guide my work moving forward in AC4D.