Synthesizing the value of design research

Through the first few weeks of design theory class, we have read a multitude of papers and excerpts from various authors that I have been trying to connect to my personal life experience. Most recently,  we had a series of readings about the role of design research highlighting various ways to prototype, probe, and conduct research. Mixed into the reading was a stressed importance on synthesis – or the ability to take the information and turn it into knowledge. As this course is focused on design research, and the author of one such article was Jon Kolko the co-founder of AC4D, I thought it would be compelling to synthesize the readings into a valid argument for the value of design research, for my own understanding as much as for the class assignment. It has been muttered on multiple occasions to learn how to explain “the unique value of design research”, so that is what I am attempting to do.

AC4D_IDSE102_value of research_08

The x-axis of this graph was assigned to us as “designing for” and “designing with”, while the y-axis was up to our own interpretation. After scribbling through various versions, I found the most compelling y-axis to be “problem seeking” vs “problem solving”.  The issue of problems was a common theme through all the authors, as problems are inherent to life much less design, but the approach taken be each author was unique.

To better explain the position of each author, I have highlighted a quote from their reading and will use it to justify their location.

Once a product direction has been established, research with customers can enhance and improve it. – Don Norman

Norman is not opposed to design research, but he made it very clear he thinks it is best used to find incremental gains from existing products. His problem space has already been defined, and his thought that technology comes first, and need comes second leads me in the direction that he is not designing with the consumer, but for them.

Context is a central issue for HCI design and for interactive systems more broadly. The goal of the work described here is to find the right scope of the problem. – Paul Dourish

Dourish was an interesting read, and was one of the hardest to locate on the graph. The problem he refers to in the quote relates to the fluid nature of “context”, and that we can not design for a specific context but rather design a system that allows for flexibility. Ultimately, I believe that he is designing for users because he notes that the user, not designers will dictate the way technology is used by how they incorporate it into practice, without mention of consulting with users. He has already defined his problem space as being the inability to design for context.

This paper has presented the Product Ecology, a theoretical framework and an approach for conducting qualitative design research with the goal of understanding the complex context of use around a product. – Jodi Forlizzi

Forlizzi wrote extensively about how to utilize the proper research technique, and laid forth a framework for determining which application to use. Throughout, she spoke of observing products and conducting research to improve upon them, which put her on the problem solving end of the spectrum, while also observing the users more than interacting with them in the research.

There is no simple answer, but the analysis we have done shows that challenging some of the implicit assumptions held in the HCI community is necessary when considering technology…  – Christopher La Dantec

When reading La Dantec is was very clear that he wanted to design with the user. Their research project involved getting behaviors and insights directly from the homeless population he was looking to serve. They also tried to remove assumptions when entering the problem space, which moved him higher up the problem seeking scale. The big hold-back for his research not being higher in the problem seeking graph was that he defined his user base to narrowly, as only the homeless and their case workers, when the research had the possibility to effect other populations with similar behaviors (transient, socially disconnected could also serve our military).

What is the point of deliberately confusing our volunteers and ourselves? Most fundamentally, it is to prevent ourselves from believing that we can look into their heads. – Bill Gaver

Gaver had an interesting research experiment called “probology” which gave very ambiguous directions to the user for capturing information. He argued that the uncertainty of knowing what type of information will be returned required the designer to be subjective, and to not enter the problem space with any pre-conceived notions.

In the fuzzy front end, it is often not known whether the deliverable of the design process will be a product, a service, an interface, or something else. The goal of this exploration is to define the fundamental problems and opportunities and to determine what is to be, or should not be, designed and manufactured. – Liz Sanders

Sanders was a staunch supporter of designing with. She felt that adding perspectives from non-designers and bringing the user into the mix was the best way of co-creation. By spreading a wide net at the beginning of the process, it allowed for various possibilities of what the end result might be.

Rather than dive right in to tackle the brief at face value, we find it helpful to back up and understand the larger context. By zooming out, we can illuminate deeper layers of significance. – Jane Fulton Suri

Jane had a very holistic view of design, spread across two readings. The overarching theme that I took away was that the best results from design research happen when you enter the problem space without any assumptions. By involving the users we get a better understanding of what the problem might be, build empathy, and we can then synthesize to build a better product.

A designer attempting to produce an innovative design will conduct research focusing on the experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture. This research will describe an opportunity — design research acts as problem finding. – Jon Kolko

Jon’s reading hammered home what I believe is the point of our curriculum. By incorporating the user and making the process human-centered over design-centered, we are more likely to find valuable insights into their behavior. Jon also talks about synthesis being the most important role of a designer, that it is the bridge between information and understanding, and that putting people at the center of the research and removing assumptions, we are more likely to make meaningful impacts on society.

Design synthesis is the link between the type of behavioral research described earlier — the potential for the future state — and the creation of something new. It is the most critical part of the creative process of design. Jon Kolko

While testing the graphs, I also noticed a correlation between the axis’. The more human centered “design with” way we approach the research, the more likely we are to make revolutionary innovation as well. The idea of seeking out a problem is more fruitful than assuming a problem and will afford us the best possibility to make an impact.

AC4D_IDSE102_value of research_human v design innovation

I believe that the value of human-centered design research is articulated here by showing the methods of research we use can directly relate to the magnitude of innovation we can create for society.

A Series of Situations

As our first assignment in Theory, we were tasked with formulating a stance on ethics and responsibilities of design in society, as we understood it from the readings of five authors (Papanek, Bernays, Dewey, Vitta, and Postman). Through my own interpretation and class discussions, I tried to make sense of the positions each author made in their writings, and then bring that interpretation to life through a graphical diagram. 

Before jumping into the diagram, I feel I need to frame the assignment as I understood it. The brief began with “the readings discussed different ways of ethically positioning design in society.” So first, I needed to understand how I was going to use the term design as a control point. Design is both a noun and a verb, giving it little sense of place in the context of an assignment. Because each author did not directly speak to design in the noun sense, that of creating physical forms and blueprints, I chose to use it in the sense of a verb. 





verb: design; 3rd person present: designs; past tense: designed; past participle: designed; gerund or present participle: designing

  1. decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it.
    “a number of architectural students were designing a factory”
  2. do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.


Using the second definition of design in verb form, I felt I could connect with each author in a meaningful way because each spoke distinctly of acting with intention. 

To better make sense of how I was interpreting their positions on design, I made up a fictitious quote for each author as I imagined they would feel. I think these would actually be really good pickup lines to try at a bar sometime.

AC4D_IDSE102_01_designer role graph_v3_8.28.19


As you notice from my graphic, I felt each author held the ethics of design in high regard. I battled with this conclusion mostly with Bernays, who I believe was more economical in his writing than the others. Although after consideration, I believe he was talking about design as well when considering that all public relations campaigns used to sway public opinions were thought out and planned with intention, and that he too felt that design was critical to our social fabric in this regard. 

Without more readings and context, I found it hard to marginalize the difference between the value each author put on design. To say Papanek is slightly higher on the scale than Vitta seemed trivial, and because the scale was so abstract to begin with in makes sense to align them all at the same point. 

This notion of all the authors having a similarly high regard for the use of design in society, and designers in general, is better illustrated when we think about how their views work together. 



The series of situations is a recurring cycle that we can jump into at any point. The idea of a series of situations was noted by Dewey in the context of interactions happening between people and their environment, and that an experience can not be separated from either the people or places in context, without altering the experience altogether.



If we hop into the cycle at the top, and believe that having a positive experience will encourage the growth of any individual, but in this case a designer, we can assume that the designers will evolve into a better version of themselves. This was the perspective of Dewey. The experience knocks down barriers we may have setup for ourselves, and allows us to imagine more freely and thus be more creative. The positive experience encourages multiple new experiences, creating diversity of knowledge and culture enabling us to think with empathy.  The idea of various experiences giving more perspective was brought up by Papenek. Having empathy, as said by Postman, is what differs us from machines, and guides us to search for problems worth solving. 

When the well-informed designer begins problem solving, they have more tools in their tool-belt for how to tackle foreign situations. They think in new ways and are not afraid of failure. The idea of trying to fail and not being chastised for failure are ideas brought up by both Papanek and Dewey. Failure at trying to solve a worthwhile problem is better than succeeding at creating a useless solution. The designer also has more tools than ever before and new technology that can be creatively put to use in ways we had not previously imagined. Postman harps on how technology has been applied without a positive impact on society, but applied to a meaningful product he would agree in the value of information. The unorthodox thinking and availability of technology allow us to create a better, more purposeful products, which are addressing problems worth solving. This is a sentiment shared by both Postman and Papanek.

I believe Vitta thinks that we interact with designers on a daily basis, because everything around us has been designed, and it gives an heir of influence to the designers. The designer, who now has great responsibility, also has the power of persuasion. Persuasion is a specialty of Bernays. By persuading the public to invest in the purposeful product, and because the product was well designed and well informed, the public has a positive experience when they interact. The positive experience this time is of the public, but it propels the cycle to start again. This positive experience is one of the key teachings of Dewey. As other designers begin to see the value of empathy, problem solving, and using technology for the advancement of society, we have changed their perception by exposing the cliche that bad designers are bad for society. We can thank Bernays for that tactic. 

There is a catch to all of this, one that I believe was abundant in Postman’s reading. What if we do make a new, purposeful product, with great intention and positive experience? How can we know for sure what the ultimate consequences will be? It’s impossible to predict how 7.5 billion unique people will react to a new situation, because they all have prior baggage which is affecting their perspective. How do we know someone won’t take the technology we designed for good, and use it for greed and profit, or worse for harm? We don’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do the right thing.

Bootcamp Reflection

The first four days of AC4D are in the books. Technically this isn’t even true, as we just went through bootcamp and have yet to even start the actual syllabus. It all seems daunting. This week was fast paced and threw me into a lot of uncomfortable situations like meeting the new classmates I will share my life with for the next 8+ months, as well as knocking on windows of local food trucks to get a taste of real life research.  It was exciting and scary,  and definitely hot.

I learned that research is hard, but not as hard as I imagined in my head. People are willing to share their stories and let you into their world and I learned that a smile and eye contact make it easier for them to do so.

I found that making sense of the data is difficult to do well, and that a bad connecting statement will make the tasks that follow even more cumbersome. I realized meaningful insights are hard to come by and I am not adept at being very provocative.

In the concept phase, my group did well trying to generate 300 ideas even though we probably came up short of that number. We fed off each others concepts and ended up with a few solid product ideas to sketch out in a vignette, my favorite being a product that allows food truck owners to have a menu with dynamic pricing that offers lower cost menu options during off-peak hours to help them increase sales throughout the day.

This week confirmed in myself that this is the course I want to be taking, and that learning the framework of design strategy will help me get the value I was seeking out of AC4D.