The Role of Subjectivity in Design Research

The past couple weeks, we have read ten articles by eight various designers. Below I’ve mapped each of these designer’s positions on a chart depicting whether we should be designing with or for the users and what level of importance the designer’s own subjectivity has in the design process.

William Gaver, Paul Dourish, and Don Norman all fell on the side closer to designing for their participants rather than designing with their participants. Although they each have very different processes, in the end, these processes ended up with more reliance on the input of the designer than the input of the participant.

Jon Kolko, Jodi Forlizzi, Christopher Le Dantec, Liz Sanders, and Jane Fulton Suri all fall on the side of designing with over designing for their users, of course each of them to varying degrees.  In her article “A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design,” Liz Sanders makes a case for the insightful applications of co-creation. This argument puts her at the far end of designing with the users as she proposes co-creation should start during the pre-design phase, specifically for societal design projects.

Along with the ideas of designing for or designing with, I also broke down the designer’s position on the importance of the designer’s own subjectivity. The ideas that a researcher needs to be objective and there should not be any personal bias in their work were strong pillars of research methodology that were hammered into my thought process from an early age by the hard sciences. As a Biology major, I was well versed in how to keep my subjectivity from creeping into the results. Repetition, statistical analyses, and statistical significance were all ways of correcting for bias and making sure that you had statistical significance to back up your analysis of the results.

For me, design thinking has been shaking this (once solid) notion of researcher objectivity to its core. In his chapter “The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation,” Jon Kolko writes that “Avoiding bias is irrelevant. The goal is not to be objective but instead to be rigorous.”

Where does my voice come into play? Where should it be present and where should it not be present? Am I getting subjective data from my participants? Were all ideas swirling around in my head as I learned new information about the design research process.

It was a difficult task to map out these authors from more subjective to more objective. I started mapping out each author individually based on their respective articles, but the amorphous nature of subjectivity kept evading me. After mapping and remapping where I thought each designer should go, I started to realize that my line dichotomy, subjectivity versus objectivity, was the problem.

Subjectivity can occur in many places within the design research process. We can gather subjective data from our participants and we can use our own subjective lens to analyze the data. As I was trying my best to position each of these designers onto the chart and understand their perspectives on subjectivity, I realized that it was necessary for me to break down subjectivity into participant’s subjectivity and designer’s subjectivity. The below diagram maps out the author’s position on the importance of the designer’s own subjectivity within the design process.

William Gaver falls at the top end of this spectrum with a high level of importance given to the designer’s own subjectivity. In his article, “Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty,” Gaver presents a very subjective method to studying participants. Not only is the data he collects from participants subjective, but his methods of synthesizing that information is also very subjective and carries a lot of bias from the designer.

As I went on to map out the rest of the designer’s positions, several of them resonated with me and began to help reform my perspective about subjectivity and its role in design research.

In her article, “Going Deeper, Seeing Further: Enhancing Ethnographic Interpretations to Reveal More Meaningful Opportunities for Design,” Jane Fulton Suri, states the following:

Many times when people describe the role of the researcher, they will comment ‘The researcher is the objective one on the team.’ Instead, we prefer to think of ourselves as people who immerse ourselves in other people’s subjectivities.

This idea resonates with me. We are immersing ourselves in other people’s subjectivity. The more we immerse ourselves in other’s subjectivities, the less our own subjectivity as a designer plays a role. Here enters Empathy.

Our quest for empathy and understanding our participants helps us ultimately become less subjective. While we can never truly be another person, as we immerse ourselves in their subjectivity, we can start to see through their lens and this changes the influence of our own subjectivity. It moves us from relying on our own thoughts and opinions to relying on theirs and, in a sense, we as designers become more objective.


The above chart maps out several prominent designer's views on designing with or for the user and the importance of the designer's own subjectivity in the process.
The above chart maps out several prominent designer’s views on designing with or for the user and the importance of the designer’s own subjectivity in the process.