We had a series of readings last week that each touched on a different aspect of value in design. Each author had vastly different opinions on where in the design process user-engagement adds the most value.
What adds value to design?
Don Norman values innovation above all else. He defines innovation as technological advancement. He posits in Technology First, Needs Last: The Research-Product Gulf that radical advancements in technology are the only way for design to move forward. A user may tweak a design once it is on the market to shift its use from something periphery to a human need, but use follows technology.
Jon Kolko values understanding and empathy. He gains these through design research, by “[learning] from people to emphasize people, rather than technology or business.” He stresses that design research is a way to inspire new ideas and find design opportunities, not a sure-fire pathway to innovation.
Paul Dourish is a technologist himself, working in the field of ubiquitous computing. He believes that value in design derives from context. Context is ever changing, and dependant on multiple factors including social interaction and activity. A design that is valuable in one context may need to shift functions to remain valuable in another.
Bill Gaver values the insights of a designer above all else. He uses a research device called “Probes” to get inspiration from the user. But really, that’s all he hopes to get from the user: inspiration from the designer. He discourages people from using his “Probes” to ask pointed questions or try to find specific data points. He believes researchers should use results from the prompts in the “Probes” as a sort-of filter for their own thoughts, to let inspiration seep through.
Liz Sanders values community co-creators. She emphasizes bringing potential users into the design process to help make the design and see it through to market. She believes that everyone has a desire and ability to create, and that designers should harness that ability to create products with communities.
How does user-engagement affect design value?
Don Norman’s article posits that design research can be used to make some small incremental changes in a revolutionary design, but iteration is generally working within the framework of something that already exists. It may shift the design slightly, change a few features, but redesigning some revolutionary technology is unlikely to do much more than that. I agree with this premise, but I believe there is a way to use design research with new technology that may make the technology more successful at the outset: if you can fill a need with your product rather than waiting for someone else to find it, your product will likely be adopted sooner. Just having a ‘new cool thing’ doesn’t mean much without a need.
Jon Kolko dives into behavioral research when starting a new design project. He encourages designers to step back and use design synthesis as a method of rationalizing and substantiating their thinking. Synthesis allows designers to use what they learned from watching the behavior of potential users to translate an “opportunity into specific design criteria.”
Paul Dourish is really focused on the technology of ubiquitous computing. He seeks to understand content of human interactions and actions and how they work together to form context. In his article, What we talk about when we talk about context he doesn’t discuss what kind of objects he’s building, but instead focuses on how we should be looking at social context in technology, which leads me to believe that he is letting the data guide what he builds.
Bill Gaver utilizes user-engagement earliest, and lets it go soonest. He doesn’t want to really understand the people he connects with through the “Probes,” he wants to let his own mind build their stories. It’s impossible to know if he interprets the results in a way that makes sense to the participants because he doesn’t for clarification. This style of design research has a huge risk of gross misinterpretation.
Liz Sanders engages with users early, but doesn’t let go. She wants designers to fully empathize with community co-creators to make something unique and valuable within that community. Sanders stresses that diversity is a key driver for collaboration, but I worry that having designers work so closely with communities that members of that community are co-designers and co-owners, may eventually stagnate ideas, lead to problems with leadership, especially if members of the community are always co-creators and not just creators.