Participatory Design

This week in our design research methods class, we have been trying out participatory design, a research method in which the researcher actively attempts to involve stakeholders in the design process. Our class is just beginning this project, so our job currently is to help our participants define the problem space as well as get a feel for what possible solutions for their pain points would feel like. This will help us to make actionable insights and design criteria for our project.

My team in particular has been focusing on learning which factors influence consumers’ purchasing and eating of different cuts of meat. Consequently, we tried out two different but closely related participatory design methodologies. For our first three participatory design interviews, we had our subjects save their meat offcuts from any meals prepared between when we contacted them and our interview. We used those offcuts as a jumping-off point for discussing which parts of an animal they considered to be desirable as food and why. Next, we had our participants create a journey map of the last time they prepared a meal that included meat, all the way from the meal occuring to them through clean up. This allowed us to go in depth about their motivations and emotions during each step of the process. Finally, we asked our participants to create an idealized journey map that had all the same steps as the first map. However, for this map our participants selected images from a set prepared by Leah McDougald. For each step, they had to select an image that represented what that action would ideally be like and what it ideally would not be like. This, again, allowed us to focus on our participants’ desired emotional resonance for each step in dealing with meat.

At the suggestion of our teacher, Jonathan Lewis, we changed things up for our final participatory design interview by having our participant complete a different homework assignment. Rather than holding on to her offcuts, we asked our participant to go to the grocery store meat section where she normally shops and take 10 photos of things she had not eaten before, 10 photos of things she ate frequently, and 10 photos of things she wished she ate more often. We evidently did not explain this assignment well enough as our participant took photos from every section of the grocery store, not just the section with the animal products. However, she did get some photos from the sections we were interested in, and that did help to prompt a conversation about what she eats and does not eat. However, I’ve got to say that the most exciting part of the interview for me was when she unprompted began describing the barrels of food at the old markets in New Orleans that her mother and grandmother used to tell her about. It was so clear that this was her ideal, a visceral, sensual shopping experience.

Though these interviews yielded rich results, they could have been better. I found myself sometimes asking leading questions such as, “Do you like X?” rather than the more neutral phrasing, “What do you think about X?” We also gave our participants sticky notes with suggested steps in the meat consumption process on them. My thinking as someone who comes from an education background is that people often need scaffolding in new types of creative activities, but our teacher Lauren Serota suggested that we just let people state the steps in their own words, and that worked fine as well. We probably received similarly detailed descriptions using both methods, but by letting our participants write their own steps we got more insight into which steps they thought were important. Lastly, we need to do better as a team about arriving at interview sites early so that we can do the pre-interview checklist suggested by the design thought leader Steve Portigal. We sometimes entered interviews a bit flustered, which did not appear professional.

Design Research

These past two weeks, we have been learning about different methods of design research and the theoretical underpinnings of those methods. After considering readings from five different authors, I’ve walked away with limited respect for Don Norman’s belief in the limitations of design research and distaste for William Gaver’s conception of cultural probes. On the other hand, Paul Dorish’s idea of designing for a more phenomenological conception of context has value, and so does Jon Kolko’s faith in ethnographic research and synthesis as sources of design criteria. Likewise, Liz Sanders’s practice of co-design from start to finish appealed to me. But let’s go explore these ideas more deeply through the magic of Adobe Illustrator.

In the comic I created to illustrate my understanding of and thoughts about the latest readings, our protagonist is a young king. When we first look in on him, he is driven to madness by the repetitious “helpful” hints of Peppy, a side character in the N64 Game, Starfox 64.

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Being an empowered and surprisingly design-oriented young man, he summons five designers to help him come up with a new game, the first of whom is Don Norman.

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After engaging in ethnographic observation, Don Norman offers the perfectly reasonable if uninspiring choice to upgrade Starfox 64 and make it Starfox 65, a better version without the annoying character Peppy. This plot point reflects the actual Don Norman’s belief that design research is not good at finding hidden unmet needs, but is rather best used to observe the small annoyances and workarounds people use with existing products. One can then in a low-risk way incrementally improve upon previous works. Norman does not believe design research can lead to innovative leaps, so best for him to stay with a safe choice. In this case, however, the king, like me, finds Norman’s offerings inadequate.

The king’s next visitor is William Gaver, he of the cultural probes. Cultural probes, despite their somewhat menacing name, are just ambiguous activities research participants complete in the absence of the researcher. Gaver assigns the king a few characteristically odd tasks.

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A reluctant king completes Gaver’s tasks, and then Gaver goes off and, embracing ambiguity and subjectivity, makes up a story about the king’s life given the meager evidence his probes reveal. Gaver then creates a game based on the, in this case wildly false, assumptions he made based on his cultural probe. This storyline reflects my frustration with Gaver’s methods, specifically with how we lauds the extra mystery and creativity that arises out of forcing oneself to make up narratives about one’s research subjects. This seems silly to me. Humans are pretty good at gaining insight from observing other humans. Why would you cut yourself off from that source of insight? Anyway, the king is likewise unimpressed and gives Gaver the boot.

Next, the king sees Paul Dorish.

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The real Paul Dorish believes that context is constructed by people moment to moment and that it depends both on the environment and the activities taking place there. Consequently, he favors designs that go beyond mere co-design (which produces a fixed end product) by making the context of the design transparent to and modifiable by users. In this case, those qualities are represented by Minecraft, which allows users to create Mods and Servers that fundamentally modify the rules of the original game. While I believe having that level of control in every designed product would be overwhelming to users, it could be pretty cool in some situations.

Next,  the king meets Jon Kolko.

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Jon Kolko is a great believer in design research that produces design criteria. Furthermore, he believes that synthesis can lead to uncovering unmet needs that users might not even realize they have (in this case, the king wants to see the elderly duke it out). Like the real Jon Kolko, our comic Jon Kolko thinks that the measure of innovation is the value ascribed to a product by normal people. This jibes with my impression of the world and the ability of most people to see beyond the face value of others’ words. Kolko’s ideas seem applicable to every design research scenario I can envision.

Next and last, the king meets Liz Sanders.

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Liz Sanders believes in co-designing with participants from the fuzzy front end all the way to finalizing the product. As such, she acts more as a facilitator than a researcher, using her skills to elicit ideas from the king that he might not have been able to articulate on his own. In this way, the king and Liz Sanders form a true partnership.

Like the king, co-design seems pretty great to me, if resource intensive. I can imagine that many projects have budget and time limitations that would prevent co-designing a product from start to finish. I also believe there are some projects for which the designer is already so familiar with the problem area that co-designing would be a misuse of resources. However, it is nonetheless a good ideal to shoot for.

“Weird” Meat and Tomato Metaphors

Josh leaned in closer to the food truck window, trying to get his mike up by the owner. “You didn’t try the duck?”

The man was already shaking his head. “No. No.” He went on, spinning a hypothetical: “You’re 26, so your age, you never eat tomatoes. Are you ready to eat tomatoes?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “No. You will avoid – your stomach will refuse it.”

This from a man who had immigrated to America from Baghdad after the Iraq War. His wife had just told us how she sometimes cooked lasagna for their family at home, a dish they certainly didn’t eat back home. Here laid bare was the contradiction many of our research participants embraced.

You see, my little design research team of three has been looking into people’s experiences with meat off-cuts and exotic meat. After interviewing consumers, butchers, chefs, and subject matter experts, we had begun to see that just about everyone viewed some animal part or species as disgusting, and they often thought this new food item would make them physically sick. Nevertheless, upon questioning, these same people often had tried a wide array of meats and meat cuts other than the ones you would most commonly find in the grocery aisle. These conversations have shown my team that you can never really take people’s assessments at face value when they say they just eat the normal stuff. Normal in Baghdad was camel. Normal in Florida was gator and frog legs. As a consequence, whereas before I sometimes never got to it, after the first few interviews I have definitely always worked in an activity in which I give people a piece of paper listing (with images) different animals. This has become a great tool for getting people to remember and relate stories about which animals they have tried out. This gives us much more rich data about which animals and animal parts are “clean” or “healthy” and why or how those attitudes change. So maybe we will be able to entice the 26 year-old Josh’s of the world to down some metaphorical tomatoes someday.

Design Theory: A Love Story

To illustrate the ideas of the six design (or design-adjacent) thought leaders we read about this week, I created a “Ethics and Design: A Love Story.” In this story, our poor protagonist, “Michaela” Hobbes (a proxy for Michael Hobbes) searches for love on a series of blind dates. As all dating-age humans know, there be some dragons in the dating population.

First, Hobbes encounters Emily Pilloton.

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In dating as in life, Emily Pilloton sticks to her guns that people designing the solution to a problem should be personally invested for the long haul in a systems-based solution rather than a point solution.

Next, Hobbes tangles with Maurizio Vitta.

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Being an idealist, Vitta is shocked and dismayed to learn that Hobbes has wasted her life and sacrificed her autonomy by buying branded products, products that act as mere simulacra of useful tools. Consequently, Vitta burns her clothes in order to encourage her to redirect her energy into solving more worthwhile problems.

Hobbes’s third romantic encounter does not even make it to a face-to-face.

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She encounters a soul-patched ignoramus who sends the same very odd message to every woman he encounters online. In true Micheal Hobbes fashion, she urges him to let go of the idea that a plan that worked once in a highly specific situation will work in other situations. Instead, she urges him to tailor his solutions for each individual woman he approaches while also urging him to address the broader problem that his dating profile makes him look terrible.

For her fourth romance, Hobbes dates Edward Bernays.

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Bernays, desiring a bigger breasted version of Hobbes, decides to use her love of feminism as a lever to manipulate her into enlarging her breasts. Consequently, he parades beautiful curvy women in front of her, reframes Barbie as a feminist icon, and even claims that feminist thought leaders support silicone breast implants. Hobbes sees through this ham-fisted attempt to sway her. She is an individual, not a member of an imagined homogenous mob of feminists.

Luck finally begins to favor Hobbes on her fifth date, where she encounters Victor Margolin. Margolin is a pretty sweet guy who’s excited about his career as a researcher. His innovations into artificially growing meat could help to bridge the gap between carnivores and animal-rights activists.

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Hobbes admires Margolin’s use of innovation to bridge opposing worldviews, but her sixth beau entices her most of all.

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John Dewey provides the idealism to balance out Hobbes’s pragmatism. As a Blue Apron employee, he works to enable his users not just to cook, but to gain cooking autonomy. Hobbes could quibble about the lack of creative choices in Blue Apron recipes, but she knows that their recipes are just suggestions and users can choose to follow them or deviate, depending on their level of confidence and cooking knowledge. Indeed, Dewey might be working himself out of a job, but isn’t that just the sort of self-disinterest and effectiveness that Hobbes loves?

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