The industry and practice of design is in a compelling state of flux. In recent decades more designers have requested and earned a “seat at the table” of executives and strategic decision-makers of a company. This has caused a paradigm shift in the role and function of designers.
The professional world is still catching up to this shift — as well are designers themselves. The evolution from being a skilled technical worker to a true player in the business is a professional leap in itself, but especially considering the process in which designers traditionally created. The industry standard had long been “designing for” a client, i.e. without their input in the process (or very minimal, often superficial input). Only more recently with the use of ethnographic research methods in design, along with the advent of design thinking have we shifted to the notion of “designing with” a client, i.e. soliciting their input and collaboration in the creation and iteration process, and beyond.
I was attracted to the design field because of this shift.
I had long been interested in design as a trade — branding, product packaging, typography, and compelling copy have been captivating to me since I was young. But at the same time, I’ve always been interested in the bigger picture beyond these design deliverables. What use is sexy razor packaging if it makes more waste in landfills? What does a typeface do to battle social inequity?
For a few years I was geared towards cause-based design via nonprofits, but ultimately I found these dissatisfying as well. On the whole, I found that many nonprofits either lacked the resources, strategy, or gumption to truly move the needle.
Stumbling upon design thinking has been the best marriage of my interests: creativity with true problem-solving, geared towards positive social impact.
But my time with nonprofits, as well as doing international development work in Peace Corps, taught me some surprising lessons about the business of “helping people.” I learned there’s a wide variety of approaches and motivations in this work. And not all of them provide mutual benefits to the parties involved.
This unit’s readings demonstrated to me the same is true of design. As posed by IDEO Chief Creative Officer Jane Fulton Suri:
“How can we ensure that [corporate ethnography] also provides meaningful benefits for the people who are observed, the people with whom businesses interact? We would like to believe that, going forward, the power of corporate ethnography—its biggest impact—will be to uncover opportunities that mutually benefit all of the people who participate in the economic and social network. Ultimately the businesses that may sustain innovation long term will be the ones that are able and willing to more fully align their success with the needs, desires, and success of their customers and of the other players in their business ecology.”
My aspiration in my design work is to galvanize all people as participant designers, and ensure their mutual benefit in the process as much as possible.
As such, the following authors provide various stances by which to investigate this dynamic of designing with versus designing for, as well as the relative benefit to those within a business ecology.
As this argument is primarily inspired by Fulton Suri, we’ll start with her works. Both of her readings build on phenomenological and participatory models discussed by Dourish and Sanders respectively. But in exploring possibilities for the future of corporate ethnography, she pushes the envelope by asking design research practitioners to widen and diversity their own frames.
This expanded view asks them to involve participants, researchers from other industries, and client companies in the synthesis and ideation process. With the latter, that even means challenging the client to re-examine their own lenses and biases when looking at findings. The mutual benefit comes from this expanded collaboration and buy-in from multiple parties.
Next up is Sanders. In “Co-creation in Design and its Values” she echoes Fulton Suri’s case, advocating for more co-creation and co-design in our business and nonprofit efforts to benefit all involved: ”Co-creation puts tools for communication and creativity in the hands of the people who will benefit directly from the results.”
In the introduction Sanders quotes “The Cluetrain Manifesto:” “We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings—and our reach exceeds our grasp. Deal with it.” The subtext of her argument is a general call to action towards the continued democratization of creative positive forces — a nice wink to / acknowledgement of the philosophy of John Dewey.
She provides a table in the reading that outlines where co-creation tends to happen for companies driven by monetary, use/experience, or greater societal benefit. She acknowledges it could take years for a profit-driven company to shift to true co-creation.
LeDantec’s “Designs on Dignity” proves to be an informative thought exercise to better understand the lived experience of those experiencing homelessness. His more solution-driven study, “Tales of Two Publics,” is even more useful, implementing empowering language to frame this population (referring to them as a “public” versus merely “the homeless”). His methodology in ethnography and prototyping is equally empowering: soliciting input from this public, as well as the public of social service workers that support them.
Unfortunately, the end result seems a bit muddied. It’s not clear how much the final deliverable—a digital messaging system and live message board display in the shelter—actually serves the homeless public. In fact, LeDantec acknowledges in the conclusion the airing out of their personal issues and requests on a display for all to see benefits them less than it does the service workers. Whether this tempered solution had to do with the many involved stakeholders to satisfy, is up to interpretation.
Last in this quadrant is Kolko. This section, “Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation” makes a compelling case for designers as strategists and consultants at higher levels of company decision-making. For him, the “magic” of innovative design is in the synthesis process—but only if companies (and the market as a whole) buy into the process and results.
If successful, this human-centered approach could have promising implications for other beneficiaries within the business ecology. But this reading does not explicitly address extending that reach beyond the research phase.
I’ll now work my way down the right half quadrants. Donald Norman presents a compelling provocation in “Technology First, Needs Last,” starting with his first line: “Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories, but essentially useless when it comes to breakthroughs.”
His general idea is that the most successful inventions ultimately created user need—not the other way around, as design research might have us think. Indeed, many inventions throughout history were successful without the intervention of design research. They were driven by sheer curiosity, audacity, or simply just because they could due to emerging advances in technology.
This thinking is probably the farthest away from human-centered design you could get—definitely designing for, not with. But it doesn’t mean the end result doesn’t ultimately benefit many more people than were initially involved in the process.
Jumping down to Dourish, I placed him in a neutral zone between benefit scopes because his exploration of context is ultimately more conceptual than anything else. His notion of taking close consideration of user context is a highly important one, and is certainly foundational to the work of all the authors in the top left quadrant, particularly Fulton Suri.
But my gut feeling is this: even a company conducting design research with acutely close consideration of context will not necessarily extend that thoughtfulness beyond the scope of research. True participatory design or co-creation is still a logistial leap for many companies.
Our second-to-last author (and my personal favorite) is Gaver. Informed by Dadaism, his technique of using cultural probes—or as I like to think of them, subconscious probes—incorporate play in the process as a deliberate attempt to shed any assumed sense of objectivity in design research. As he clarifies for confused practitioners, “the probes embody an approach to design that recognizes and embraces the notion that knowledge has limits.”
In essence, the use of this method provides provocative prompts to probe for deep user context and insights—so deep, Gaver admits, the findings are nearly uninterpretable. I cannot overstate how much I genuinely appreciate Gaver’s curiosity in the raw human condition, and his unconventional approach in data-seeking. Unfortunately, I fail to see how any findings with cultural probes could be actionable, nor how one could draw any conclusions in synthesis that aren’t heavily favored towards the designer’s personal perspective and ultimate benefit.
Finally, we conclude with Forlizzi. I find Forlizzi’s Product Ecology to be an interesting, dynamic framework to look at networks of people in relation to products. In cases where the final physical deliverable is the emphasis, this method of study is the best for understanding how the product is used and possible improvements.
However, the tradeoff is an approach that is less participatory in nature. It deemphasizes true user input except in a superficial sense, focused on features and function. Of all of the models we’ve covered here, I would argue this model lends itself most to the unethical use of research participants: subjects could be seen as interchangeable, and their input not as foundational to the end result.
I’d like to end with some thoughts about how mutual benefit in a business ecology would actually play out in day-to-day design work. Ideals are such for a reason: they don’t always work out in terms of client demands, budgets, and expectations for deliverables. Still, I think ideals are crucial to establish your orientation in the world, and what aspirations to focus on.
In considering how to best aim for this ideal, some questions to ask in this process may include: “What does mutual benefit in this situation look like?” “How should we handle multiple conflicting stakeholder priorities?” “What about the ‘wicked issue’ of someone’s problem we’re solving around (such as homelessness)? What is our ethical—or human obligation in this scenario?”
We can’t assume to solve for everyones’ problems. But we can trust in every person the inherent capacity as participant designer, and to grant us illumination in our own perceived or actual shortcomings.