The Evolving Role of Design Research

As we move forward from reading foundational theorists to more modern practitioners, we have seen designers grapple with competing incentives and motivations in their work as designers. One perspective to take in understanding some of these oppositional forces is thinking in terms of the locus of control within the designer’s work. Or in other words, as designers, are we “designing with” or “designing for”?

In many ways ‘designing for’ is a given. When I first studied cartography we learned that the difference between graphic design and art is that graphic design must have a purpose or goal. Because of this constraint, you can’t start making a map without first knowing who your users are and how they are going to use it. What language do they speak? Are they walking or driving? Do they know the area or are they first-time visitors? There is a goal to be achieved and that goal can be evaluated in clear terms. Did my map help you get to the Palacio de Bellas Artes? Then it worked. The art contained within the Palacio isn’t subject to the same type of scrutiny. Unlike design, art doesn’t have to solve a problem. It can provoke, soothe, delight, confuse. It is emotional, rather than functional.

If design by definition is always “for” someone, how can we put it on a continuum contrasting it with something else? The two models I propose are the subject model of the user and the object model of the user. Is the user at a remove? Someone we view through a two-way mirror? Who can be observed, but cannot give input. This is the user as an object. In the act of scrutinizing them, we have objectified them. The locus of control is entirely with the designer. As my classmates and I discussed our experiences as logo designers or non-profit consultants, we realized that this framing was typically the default framing. We asked our clients (and by extension, our users) to step aside to let the professionals do their work. “After all, it’s what you hired me to do.”

A subject model recognizes the agency of the user. It finds ways to include them in the process or even provides opportunities for them to direct aspects of the process. Defining the user as a subject allows the designer to be in conversation with the people she is researching in a more profound way. Liz Sanders describes the utility of co-creation that involves the users and other stakeholders extensively in the design process. “Co-creation of this type involves the integration of experts and everyday people working closely together…with direct personal involvement.” She cites the capacity for all people to be creative and the ameliorative potential of including diverse voices in co-creation when the design team itself does not effectively represent the beneficiaries of their work. Sanders also recognizes the barriers to co-creation. “The shift for companies in seeing their objective change from designing for people to co-creation is profound. It takes many years for the mindset and practices of co-creation between companies and people to permeate and change an organization.”


Extending this observation about the challenges inherent in adopting an approach that maintains the locus of control with the user, John Kolko discusses the evolution of the role of the designer in organizations that are attempting to adopt a more user-centric and pervasive approach to incorporating design research into strategic decisions. The designer needs to be engaged in thoughtful, two-way communication with the users so that she can thoroughly “understand the experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture.” And she also needs to be able to meaningfully convey that understanding to individuals throughout the organization. The designer becomes an advocate for the user and conduit for the insights gleaned from the research process. Her role is as a facilitator of the design process and an articulator of the outcomes.

Given the awareness that Kolko and Sanders have of the organizational ecosystems that designers exist in, the object model of design that keeps the participants at a distance might seem untenable. Yet, many counterexamples exist and even dominate the culture of design.

We read Bill Gaver’s description of his development of Cultural Probes for use in design research. One example Gaver describes is capturing 10-second audio snippets of dreams that participants recorded and then sent to him on a device that didn’t allow editing or erasing. For him, these weird, irrational windows into other people’s cognition are exactly what a designer needs to spur creativity. His unique methodology has been adopted by other researchers, but they are attempting to deploy Gaver’s whimsical methodology in more sober ways. He conveys his disappointment at seeing Cultural Probes being misappropriated by more pragmatic researchers. They “design theirs to ask specific questions and produce comprehensible results. They summarize the results, analyze them, even use them to produce requirements analyses.”

Gaver’s probes are completely one-sided; they intentionally do not allow for interaction or conversation between participants and designers. The artifacts do not allow for context or explanation. The locus of control is firmly with the designer. The work of the designer is to bring new creations into the world using these snippets as muses. Those who would try to standardize or rationalize the process are missing the point. He says, “Whereas most research techniques seek to minimize or disguise the subjectivity of this process through controlled procedures or the appearance of impersonality, the Probes purposely seek to embrace it.” Despite the squishiness of information he gleans from Cultural Probes, he trusts them to effectively guided his process, saying, “the Probe returns have allowed us to predict with confidence which system our volunteers might prefer, just as we might predict which item in a shop our friends might like.” Gaver wants to use his probes to intuit what gift to buy, rather than have his participants tell him what is on their wishlist.

As significant a departure as Gaver’s approach is to the Sanders/Kolko framing, the three have a commonality; all are hoping to create a design environment that can incubate innovation. The creation of new things that have never existed before. New companies, new products, new systems, new environments, new services. The idea that a designer’s work is to create new things is culturally prominent, however, creation is not always the intention of design research. Often designer’s talents are applied to iteration, optimization, and customization, rather than innovation. Donald Norman argues that design research is only effective as a means of iterating on existing objects. He feels that design research in the service of creating new breakthroughs is unrealistic. His argument lacks a body of evidence to support it and was fiercely opposed when it was published, yet one cannot deny that many if not most professional designers are engaging in work that improves existing ideas rather than creating fully new technology.


An analogous framework for considering these two opposing views is the debate amongst evolutionary biologists of how to best model genetic change over time, gradualism or punctuated equilibrium. Gradualism suggests that species gradually evolve over time, while punctuated equilibrium suggests that species exist for long stretches of time with no genetic changes until a beneficial mutation or change in context confers an evolutionary advantage that spreads rapidly through the population. While gradualism was the mechanism that Charles Darwin advanced in the Origin of Species, the theory of punctuated equilibrium is meant to explain patterns observed by paleontologists in the fossil record.

Those who advance an innovator’s view of design believe in a world where new breakthroughs can burst onto the scene and change the way we live. The gradualist view suggests that there really are no new ideas, just a vast ecosystem in which small optimizations can give a product or service enough of an advantage to outperform its competitors. Norman believes in a world in which both gradual change and radical breakthroughs exists, but that design research is only effective in advancing gradual change.

Although biologists have theories about what types of selection pressures and environments might favor incremental change or breakthroughs, Norman does not consider what conditions would be favorable to more dramatic breakthroughs. A place to look to answer that question would be Jodi Forlizzi’s description of a product ecosystem. She details the changes in HCI from considering a single user and a single interface to considering the entire ecosystem in which a product exists, an ecosystem that includes other users and other products.

An example of a product in my lifetime that felt like a breakthrough was the iPod. Carrying around your entire music library on a device the size of a deck of cards felt amazing after spending most of my adolescence lugging around easily damaged, over-priced CDs in bulky disc carriers so that I could play them on my battery-powered Discman that was prone to skipping and always needed new batteries. This product wasn’t produced in a vacuum. At the time the iPod was introduced I already had tons of music on my computer thanks to Napster and tons of burned copies of albums or mix CDs that my friends had shared with me thanks to the ubiquity of PCs with CD drives that could burn music onto discs incredibly cheaply. The iPod emerged into a product ecosystem of friends and strangers that were sharing huge quantities of music, with several other substitute technologies that were inferior in ease of use and quality.

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While Norman would argue that the iPod was a technological breakthrough of scientists working without input from design research. Forlizzi would suggest that comprehensive, incremental design research focused on understanding that product ecosystem was responsible for the success of products like the iPod. Similarly, Jane Fulton Suri advances a theory of design research and synthesis that can be applied to experience design, rather than product design, to drive incremental changes. Both rely on studying interactions with existing products and prototypes to create optimized versions of these existing products and services.

Taking this research from the incremental and designer-driven to the incremental and user-oriented is the work of Paul Dourish. He analyzes the complexity of context when we consider designing objects that have contextual awareness. Whether it’s a smart home that adjusts to your presence to turn on lights or a customer service bot that responds to open-ended inquiries, technology is increasingly being designed to leverage an understanding of the user’s context. When successful our products feel seamlessly integrated into our lives, however, Dourish details the ways in which a shallow understanding of subjective context or a misreading of objective context creates experiences that are frustrating and eye-roll inducing. It’s your HDR recording something you would never watch in a million years, or automated hand-dryer that refuses to see you. Dourish theorizes that a thorough understanding of context is essential for the current generation of designers.


Understanding these various vantage points in terms of locus and control as well as purpose allows for reflection on the methodologies and focuses that one might choose when engaging in a new research project. Will I look to Gaver for whimsical methods that cherish the creativity and perspective of the designer? Or to Dourish for the possibilities afforded by an intricate understanding of context? Or will I attempt to find a middle ground? One researcher/practitioner that attempts to sample a little from each is Chris LeDantec. He shares stories from his research into developing technology for use by people experiencing homelessness and their caseworkers. His techniques borrow from Gaver’s cultural probes, but are also rooted in process intended to develop a deep understanding of the user’s context. He integrates aspects of Sanders-esque co-creation when he brings caseworkers into stages of the design process. His design is ultimately in the style of Forlizzi, an incremental application of existing technologies, optimized for a particular use case.

As I continue to have more experiences in choosing design research methods, I am curious to see how the different approaches yield different results. I am also curious how each of these might feel as a designer. Is it more rewarding to design in a collaborative way? Is to more palatable to design for incremental change? Or will I enjoy moments of being a mad scientist in the vein of Gaver?