The Role of Design Research: 8 Authors, 2 Questions

Over the past 2 weeks we’ve read a variety of articles that touch on theories, frameworks and practices of design research. We were asked to consider if they were designing with or designing for. I interpreted that as designing with or for the end user. As a designer I was most curious about where each author would put the designer in the problem-solving process.

8 authors and where their theories land in the cross-section of these two questions.
8 authors and where their theories land in the cross-section of these two questions.


1. Paul Dourish
As human computer interaction expands, Dourish wants us to consider, or rather reconsider, context when we’re gathering data. I placed him toward designing with. And I doubt he envisioned designers being at the forefront of that process, though I don’t think he’d be against it so he’s in the middle.

2. Liz Sanders
Sanders extols the value of co-creation, which she defines as collaboration to create something not known in advance. She thinks there’s value in using co-creation at all levels of a company and at various stages of the design process depending on the goals. She does say that the earlier in the process co-creation happens, the greater and broader the likely impact so I’ve placed her in the upper left.

3. Jodi Forlizzi
Like Dourish, Forlizzi wants us to think about context. Her Product Ecology framework clarifies how we should select design research methods to solve problems. As her focus is mainly on qualitative research and product design I’ve placed her in the designing for quadrant with the designers entering the process later in development.

4. Jane Fulton Suri
In her articles, Suri illustrates the benefits of experience prototyping and corporate ethnography. In every prototyping, the designers are running the show but she’s absolutely designing for since she’s not utilizing the end user in her process. In discussing corporate ethnography, she acknowledges that it’s useful but still needs to go deeper in order to solve the wicked problems.

5. William Gaver
Gaver takes a wholly unscientific approach as he explains the value of using Cultural Probes. His point is that by posing open and even absurd questions, we’ll get surprising answers. He’s bucking the traditional system of being objective. So while he’s using designers at the beginning of the process and designing with the end user in his data collection, he’s not interested in doing anything with that data.

6. Christopher Le Dantec
I’ve placed Le Dantec at the top left because he’s out in the world using design research to design with. He describes his process to gain empathy from the homeless community and understand how technology affects their daily lives.

7. Don Norman
Norman argues that there is no room for design research in innovation. He points to random past inventions (planes, trains, automobiles) as proof that we don’t need design research. His tone is very get-off-my-lawn and I think he’s uncomfortable with the idea of designers at the helm of the innovation ship, a position he, as a technologist, has traditionally enjoyed. I don’t even think he necessarily believes his own argument but he wants designers to prove that they should be there.

8. Jon Kolko
Kolko wants us to use all research to learn from and emphasize people, not technology or business. It’s possible that lightning-strike innovation (of the kind Norman references) exists but design research + synthesis is a formula for getting us there without lightning.

When I first thought of making this graph with the vertical axis being the role of the designer, I thought it would make a straight line of dots from the upper left to the bottom right. Upon deeper reading + having deeper conversations I was both surprised and intrigued to find the outliers.

Making the Grade

In one of my earlier blog posts during orientation I wrote that I was worried about failing. We were told constantly that we’d fail in the beginning for the simple reason that we don’t know what we’re doing. After all, if we did, why would we be going through this program?

I’ve been graded on 3 assignments so far and on the first two I got a 54 and a 61. I texted my sister about it and she said, “OMG are you okay?” She thought that I would be devastated by my grades. I was not devastated at all! The 54 was the find a business/sell them your plan/develop a research plan/present it to the class in fewer than 48 hours project and, uh, we did it. 54 points is over half of the possible points! For a a thing I didn’t even know I could do!

The 61 was for a presentation on super dense readings we had done and I felt underprepared and uncomfortable, at best. So a 61 was better than I expected. Plus, room to grow, amirite?

Yesterday we got our studio/drawing grades back and I was fully prepared for my 50-something grade– and I got a 79. Y’all. Apparently I overshot- I got so good at failing that for a split second I was disappointed because 21 points is not very much room to grow!

Other notes on this week: I need to get faster at transcribing, stat. I need to prioritize the readings for the 102 class better because they take so long to absorb. I actually did all my daily object sketches! And I joined Austin Bouldering Project because I think 25 minutes on the wall or in their sauna just might keep me sane over the next few months.

Week 2 Reflections: Still not drinking coffee

I’ve always thought of myself as relatively laid-back. I prefer chilling to being active, I like my drama to be on television—not in real life, I’m calm in a crisis. But ask me to present a six minute presentation and I spend a whole calendar day spiraling into anxiety.

I don’t know what I’m so afraid of! Physical pain? Death?! I’ve literally been calmer when a bee has landed on my face or a coral snake slithered next to me while I’m hiking. Here’s the thing, though. If we were broken into groups of 3-4 and I had to do the same presentation? No nerves. I’d be so cool you could skate on me.

At any rate, what I learned in my feedback is that I made my presentation harder for myself. I made a simple Keynote presentation and relied heavily on my memory and notes. I should have made a more robust presentation and let that do the heavy lifting. (I was also told that while I presented the information in a clear way, I didn’t include my own perspective. Apparently understanding these dense readings isn’t enough and I have to actually form opinions about them?)

Other things that happened this week, in no order: we did our first interview! • I wish I’d put more time into sketching. I enjoy it so I made myself do my more unsavory tasks first but then I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d have liked on sketching. • “Working sessions” are a procrastinator’s dream. Come to class and then do everything I should have done before I came to class? Fantastic.

5 Intellectuals on the Importance of Design in Society

In an alternate universe Edward Bernays, John Dewey, Victor Papanek, Neil Postman and Maurizio Vitta sit down over a glass of their beverage of choice to discuss the role of design in society. This is how I imagine that conversation would go.

Neil Postman weighs in first. He’s not against design, the same way he’s not against technology (as he argued in his speech in 1990 to IBM-Germany), but he is against design for design’s sake. Design has the capacity to make things “better” but, to what end? Technology has “amplified the din” of information to the point that we are drowning in it and have no idea what to do with it. If design isn’t problem solving, but is instead making a billion pretty things, what’s the purpose?

Victor Papanek slams his fist on the table and says that’s his point exactly! Why aren’t designers being held accountable for designing unsafe automobiles or garbage that ends up in a landfill? You know what the problem is? Designers are being forced by a quickly-accelerating society to roll with their first idea! Designers need to have both a sense of responsibility and an atmosphere permissive to failure in order to truly solve society’s problems with design.

John Dewey says he sees the merit in this and he adds that education could play a role in that “atmosphere permissive to failure,” but only if it’s an education that results in a student’s positive growth. If the teachers don’t pay attention to the experience a student brings with them to the classroom, their perfect lessons might indeed be a failure and not the kind they were intending. It’s the interaction that’s important: that ideal place where the teacher’s experience meets the student’s experience and the student’s growth is positive and she retains her curiosity and initiative in spite of setbacks she comes across in the future.

Edward Bernays looks around the table and laughs. Is everyone serious right now? Design is completely irrelevant, public opinion is what is driving society! In 1926 a public-relations counsel was utilized to completely reimagine the millinery industry. Everybody was involved! Beautiful women, artists, publishing houses, fashion designers: they all played a role in the creation of a velvet hat trend that knocked the felt cloche off of its pedestal. Then they used that momentum to bring velvet gowns to the masses as well, simply by photographing those hats and gowns on various countesses or duchesses. And if everyone here at this table thinks that’s old news, literally, he’d like to remind them of what happened when Carrie Bradshaw wore her Manolo Blahniks or when any product is posted on Goop.

At the mention of Goop, Maurizio Vitta coughs and takes a sip of his beverage. You’re all wrong, he says.  The only reason we’re designing anything at all is because we have a need to consume, driven by a need to work and be social. As more and more objects are created, they begin to lose their functional value and start to simply define the person using it. As such, they become cultural signifiers regardless of public opinion or the designer’s education or intention. Designers (and the objects they design) might be perceived as important in a certain moment but as culture is constantly changing, that moment is fleeting.

End scene.

Below is a visual of their positions.

5 positions on the role of design in society
5 positions on the role of design in society

Week 1 Reflections, or The Time I Gave Up Coffee

This week a friend asked how school was going and I didn’t have time to go into detail so I described it like this:

It’s like being thrown into the deep end of a freezing pool with all your clothes on and wearing weights and they’re like, “Swim to the shallow end in 30 seconds, it’s over there somewhere.” We all show up freezing and coughing 2 minutes later and they’re like, “Cool, now we’re going to do it in a bigger pool with more weights but you have a full minute.”

Monday, in IDSE101 we received our first assignment: to reach out to 5 or more businesses (must have 2-10 locations, employ at least 10 people and whose core focus is on a “problem worth solving”) and convince one of them to engage with our process over the next 16 weeks including paying us $1000 for our efforts. We then had to develop our research plan (~5 pages) and the present our plan to the class a mere 46 hours later.

Cool. No problem. *has panic attack and dies*

Tuesday, in IDSE102 we got our first assignment for that class, which was to read 5 articles and come to class ready to discuss them. In 3 classes time, we’d have to design and present an axis representing each author’s perspective on the role of design in society.

Wednesday, as I was not dead from anxiety, I did do what I’d previously thought impossible and, with my partner Laura, presented our research plan to the class. You can read about our process here.  It went better than I expected and I was so relieved it was over. After I presented, I was instantly tired and hungry. I’d barely eaten all day and felt so much anxiety about this project that I decided to stop drinking coffee. For now, the accelerated pace of AC4D has me so amped/anxious that I don’t need the extra caffeine.

On Thursday our client emailed us with her recommendation on what our focus should be. In a fun plot twist, it was not the focus we presented to the class. So we rewrote the whole research plan to present to her on Friday. Cake, y’all, we got this.

Saturday was our Studio class, focused on sketching basics, and it was a nice balm to end the week. My husband texted me that he was going to Deep Eddy with a friend and I wasn’t even jealous. I was like, “Oh yeah? Well I’m SKETCHING all day long!”

So working in groups is hard, now what?

Keep working.

Today is the first day we drew. Was it Drawing 101, draw some white boxes and cones and cylinders? Learn to draw shadow and perspective? NEWP. We sketched vignettes (a single page drawing that clearly illustrates your idea) of the ideas we created yesterday. Then we sketched storyboards of those vignettes. Buses and people and buildings and hands and mobile phone screens.

I was pretty proud of my first vignette and I went to ask the instructor for feedback on one of the elements I’d struggled with and the first thing Pat asked was, “Why is this scenario happening?” UHHH…

This is the second day in a row I’ve paid attention to the instruction, heard the clear message and went straight into my small group and did exactly what we were instructed not to do. (It might be the third day in a row if I’m being honest with myself.) Yesterday obviously we needed to make the risky inference about the data, of course! Did I nearly start categorizing the data according to general topic? Yup! Today we were told to pick the best idea, not the easiest idea to draw. What did I gravitate toward? Ideas that could be clearly communicated visually.

Luckily! I’m on a team and they picked better ideas. After drawing our vignettes, we chose one and split up the various scenes for the storyboard and drew them on our own. Thankfully, no one went into Pictionary mode, aka This Is What I Would Have Drawn.*

Later we learned about the process of creating a product and how to apply the MVP (minimal viable product) notion to our ideas so we can present them out in the real world tomorrow. (Unfortunately I’m headed to Houston tomorrow for a funeral so I’ll miss seeing this data in action but I look forward to hearing about it.)

Something Jon said on Day 3 was that we’re building this scaffolding out of the data, our inferences, our themes, our insights, our ideas and we’re literally continually building upon them as though they’re sound structures. They may or may not be. And this is how we find out.

It’s simultaneously scary and exciting.

*This is not my joke, I saw it in a stand-up show ages ago.

“Morning people need condoms, too!”


Today, though. Building consensus is hard. Which I guess is why it’s called “building consensus” and not “everyone already agreeing on everything.”

Today we had to take our raw data and make inferences with it and create common themes. Some themes were easy and materialized quickly and organically. Others (one in particular) seemed to completely absorb all of our energy without generating any real resolution. We had to consciously step away from it more than once at various stages.

(Can I just fast forward to the part of this program where I understand what causes these pain points so I can avoid them in the future? No? Okay, cool.)

The hardest part, of course, is examining my own role in the group’s “stuckness.” Did I speak up too much? Not enough? Did I defend my own ideas enough? Not enough? And I know from transcribing my interviews that what I think I did and what I actually did don’t necessarily align.

What I do know is that things felt better to me when we switched to generating ideas. Oh, we don’t have to all agree? Fantastic! Let’s play. And we did. We bounced off of each other’s ideas, adding on ideas, riffing, creating new ideas prompted by the other ideas. Ideas like, “Buses offer free condoms at night.” To which I replied, “Free condoms should be offered all day! Morning people need condoms, too!”

In other news, today I was introduced to my husband’s boss outside of his work and I took off my sunglasses because yesterday I learned that wearing sunglasses can be viewed as a barrier to real connection. Small victories.

“Flip a fork?”

Today we were divided up into small groups and sent out in the field to ask strangers questions about their experience with Austin public transit. Before that, our small groups strategized about what we would ask and where we would go to ask these questions of people. Before that, we had to pick a focus: the process of purchasing and using a ticket or the process of planning a route. We talked through them and we were all three pretty open to both. I volunteered, “Flip a coin?” No one had a coin, so I forget which one of us said, “Flip a fork?”

And so off we went to ask people about the process of purchasing and using a ticket. I feel grateful that our group is flexible and open because our initial plan didn’t last. After talking to one man about his Metro Mobility card, we decided to visit the Capital Metro Transit Store in downtown. We also spontaneously decided to interview a cop, simply because he showed up at the bus stop we were at (not because of us, to be clear). We also decided to scrap our plan and go to a hostel on the way back to school, which was good because we got perspective on transit from a European.

I found this exercise challenging on so many levels. It’s safe to say I was way out of my comfort zone. I further left my comfort zone by attempting to do my first interview in Spanish. And that interview spiraled out of control a bit when I asked him how he usually purchased his tickets and he began talking about how he was homeless because he’d lost his papeles in a fire. Whoa. In spite of that tangent it was a productive interview because he showed us his one-way bus ticket that he bought with cash. I’ve only ever ridden the bus using the app so I didn’t know that a printed out ticket was an option.

Stray observations:
• I should have taken off my sunglasses when interviewing people outside.
• I didn’t ask as many follow-up questions as my group-mates did. I’m not sure if I wanted to have faith in our original 5 questions or if I was concerned about time or if I just wanted to get the awkward interaction over with.
• The 5-second pause is HARD. I found that I’d say, “Um,” and then pause, which brings the conversation back into my court and defeats the purpose of allowing them to expound.
• After we were done, we knew we’d soon be told all the ways we had failed so on the way back to AC4D we talked about all the parts we were proud of.
• Flipping a fork is a perfectly acceptable way to decide something so you can move forward.


“This is a great space to f%$k up.”

Y’all. I don’t like to fuck up. I don’t like to be bad at things. (e.g. I’m terrible at singing, or doing anything musical and so you will never hear me do it.) Even in a safe space I want to be really good at things. I want to nail that yoga pose. I want to have a really cool insight at book club. I want that design project to be so good that it doesn’t need feedback. I even want this blog post to be awesome.

This overall desire is, of course, unhelpful at best.

Coming into this program I knew that it would be humbling. Deep down I want it to be humbling. (Very deep down. I am not looking forward to those moments.) Because I know that being the best at something means there’s no room left to grow. And I want to grow! Which means I’m not the best. Which means I’ll fuck up.

And one of the alumni said today, “This is a great space to fuck up.” And I wrote it down and drew a box around it.* This is a safe space! We have support! They literally want me to succeed here! It’s okay to faceplant a little. It’s something I need to remember because I apparently need to get better at getting better at things.

*For funsies, the other quotes I wrote down and drew a box around were “You are writing your own story,” and “Everyone gets sick around Thanksgiving.”