Considering Time When Designing With or Designing For

AC4D is a ‘practice what you preach’ program — if you haven’t already figured that out. This week, we are knee-deep in design research for our clients, so of course, we are also discussing ethical research methods and the power of designing with– not for– our users.

For me, these readings felt really serendipitous (though I’m sure they are meticulously planned). As we grappled with the implications of interviewing folks suffering from homelessness, our first reading by La Dantec explored the same issue and showed us what a thoughtful, ethical research approach looks like. He also inspired us to avoid ‘cultural safari’ territory, and ultimately, we decided against seeking homeless participants.

As we wrap up our interview phase, these readings also helped me think about what it truly means designing for versus designing with users.

What does it mean to design with?

Our most provocative reading was by Donald Norman, the writer of Psychology of Everyday Things and an advocate for ‘just-noticeable differences’.  He asserts that design research cannot be used to make innovative changes — only inventors can do that. Design research, he argues, is most effective when used for incremental change.

Because this is seen as such a controversial statement, this helped me to understand one key thing: we are moving towards a trend of designers and companies thinking the gold-standard is to design with their users. But it seems they rarely do because inventors, egos, market research, and/or budgets stand in the way. 

As we’ve learned from Kolko, design research is an investment– in time, money, and resources. It’s an investment in understanding nuance and culture, and leads you towards more creative, future-thinking ideas. His approach feels rooted in long-term strategy — in contrast to Norman who seeks to only use design research to make better buttons. So with Kolko in one corner, and Norman in the opposite — we start to see quadrants emerge:

Assignment 2 Laura Carroll

Designing for short term vs long term

Designing for the short term is purposefully vague here — I applied it to mean either small iterations (like Norman suggests), design intended to please quarterly earnings reports, and design that seeks to capitalize on fast trends.  To me, designing for the short term tends to be motivated by profits.

On the other end of the spectrum is designing for the long term — cultural shifts, social changes, and slow-moving endeavors.  In general, I assume that if you are designing for the long term, you (hopefully) have more time to integrate true collaborative research. The short-term, however, changes so quickly that collaborative research in all processes may prove to be inefficient or too expensive. 

Le Dantec, Kolko, and Sanders all discuss highly-collaborative — and rigorous methods — that both strive for social impact and intimately involve the end-user. 

Gaver and Forlizzi, on the other hand, involve users less. Gaver, as an artist-researcher, leaves a lot of interpretation in the designer’s hand but does seek to understand key cultural insights. Forlizzi seeks to build methods that give power to the designer to look at the effect of products over time — which is why she lands closer to the “long-term” strategy point. 

Norman, as we’ve already discussed, only recommends design research for iterations. Fulton Suri, on the other hand, as a business leader at frog falls more towards the middle — choosing research methodologies for the projects at hand. 

And finally, we have Dourish in a corner alone. His complex focus on context could be applied for both short and long-term, but I placed him more towards the short term because context is ever-changing. He most definitely seeks to involve the end-user, because only they can truly understand their own context.

As I was trying to “brand” each quadrant, I wrote out short sayings (like ‘we’re better together’) that ultimately reminded me of presidential slogans. So, for some fun extra context, here are the quadrants explained with presidential slogans throughout history. 

Bush Corner 2

For reference, here’s the full list of readings: 

  • Designs on Dignity by Christopher A. Le Dantec, W. Keith Edwards
  • A Tale of Two Publics  by Christopher A. Le Dantec
  • What we talk about when we talk about context by Paul Dourish
  • The Product Ecology by Jodi Forlizzi
  • Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty by William Gaver
  • The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation by Jon Kolko
  • Technology First, Needs Last by Don Norman
  • A Social Vision for Value Co-creation in Design by Liz Sanders and George Simons
  • Going Deeper, Seeing Further by Jane Fulton Suri and Suzanne Gibbs Howard
  • Experience Prototyping by Jane Fulton Suri and Marion Buchenau