Eight Authors on Design Research Metodologies

For class we read eight different positions on theories, frameworks and practices of design research. 

My role  for this assignment was to make sense of these diverse sources and choose another angle to look at the design with, design for paradigm.

In constructing a perpendicular axis to design with, design for I evaluated where each author attributes value in the design process. I also considered two markers: the user-centred, holistic role of a designer (+y) and technology-driven, product oriented approach (-y).

Here are how these eight positions aligned in the diagram below.


1. Paul Dourish. According to Dourish design practice is interactive and dynamic. Many moving pieces of activities create new forms of meaning within his contextual model. To combine representational and interactional approaches the goal is to provide users with a more nuanced interpretation of the meaning of the system’s action. When thinking about the ubiquitous computational systems it is up to a designer to better articulate outputs for appropriate context. The designer’s role here is to translate feedback that is coming dynamically from the software in a more meaningful for the human. This knowledge can be applied to the usability prototyping and usability testing stages of the design process.  For Dourish, context plays a critical role. That is why an end-user in his model will be considered holistically.

2. Christopher Le Dantec in his field research used the “design with” methodology. The participants of his research in homeless shelters helped him share not only pictures from their day-to-day interaction with technology but they participated in later stages of the design process and helped to shape the final prototype. Participatory design added value in the early stage of the design process. The important thing to highlight here is that the design process itself gave voice and legitimacy status to otherwise outcasted public.

3. Jodi Forlizzi looks at the design process from the Product Ecology perspective.  In her model the social, emotional, aesthetic, and symbolic factors as well as the activities and interactions of the user with system are dynamic and interconnected. She puts the end-user in the middle of Product Ecology paradigm and sees him/her holistically. The added value of such design practice happens when a product already exists. 

4. Liz Sanders uses the term co-creation to define “design with” research methodology. Her approach helps to dive deeper in research, especially in finding a social value that changes organizational culture or user’s behaviour over time. For the design team this approach adds value in the early ,“fussy front end” stages of the design process. It helps to provoke conversations and define “fundamental problems and opportunities, what is to be or should not be designed and manufactured”.  In this process Sanders identifies user holistically.

5. William Gaver. Cultural probes are shortcuts for teams of designers to see the world from a subjective perspective, i.e, the user. The user is in the center for this approach. This methodology helps to share glimpses of subjective reality and adds value in provoking new way of thinking about the problem. It can be done early in the process to spark the conversation.

6. Jane Fulton Suri is a proponent of human-centred, observation-based research methods that can be applied earlier in the design process. One particular method she discusses is experience prototyping.  The complex and dynamic systems of todays world require “sensitive product behaviours”, interactions between software/hardware, frontend and backend of the product. There is a need for creating “hybrid artifacts” that get us closer to the future product’s look, touch and feel. Suri assumes that it is impossible to fully integrate context into experience, we cannot be other people, but we can deliberately choose what properties to include in our prototype. Her approach can add value when exploring an existing user experiences and context..

7. To Jon Kolko, the design practice adds value when a designer applies a new lens/meaning to data. This happens in the synthesis stage of the design process, . If the process is rigorous enough the design team can discover valuable insights, which are often an open window for innovation. Kolko looks at the end-user holistically and “design with” methodology has its place in his practice during the sense-making stage.

8. For Don Norman design work can be applied only in the late stages of the production cycle. A designer comes only to iterate and tweak an existing product. He is a proponent of traditional mass consumer paradigm where inventor invents and the designer helps him shape an improve the product through many versions. He sees technological breakthroughs as a driving force of innovation and it comes first.

Five Positions on Ethics: The Role of Design in the Society

What ethics mean when talking about design?

What ethics mean to me? What products I allow in my life?

The following principles are important to me when considering ethics in design:

  •  well researched, user-centred design that has a purpose.
  •  provides an optimistic promise to solve the problem.
  •  does not have hidden business goals to influence behaviour and make the profits from addiction.
  • considers eco-system in which it exists and all involved parties. (inclusive design)

Here are my reflections on five author’s positions.

Ethics and Responsibility DiagramWhen considering ethics in design, Bernay’s position was rated least favourable in my diagram. His idea of manipulating public opinion has many downsides that he did not see in his time. He never considers the end-user, he looks at the influence from the top-down and states that “in the era of mass production the technique of distribution can be applied to ideas”. He assumes that ideas are at the core to make a positive social change.

In his opinion “at the core of public opinion is a tenacious will to move in the direction of ultimate social and individual benefit.”  Though history has shown us that it is not enough to have will for a positive future. Bernays’ position does not give us insights on how to deal with a profit-driven agenda of big corporations, political autocracy, etc.  His position would make more sense if he shifted his focus from forming public opinion around ideas towards end-user needs. He does not clarify the ethics of an influencer assuming he knows what he is doing.

 As designers of future products we need to be responsible and foresee the possible negative consequences of our actions.

 Vitta’s position is much stronger when it comes to ethics in design. He sees the crucial role of a designer to create and translate cultural meanings. Every object that the designer ships to the world has consequences. There has to be a voice and ethical stand for what he does. The designer’s reputation is at stake every time.

Vitta describes a reality where the social value of an object is the most important and defined by the parameters of prestige, brand, gadget character etc. He never elaborated on how a producer of meaningful products (designer) can help a user have a healthier relationship with reality.

Postman warned future IT professionals (engineers/designers) to be fully aware of the downsides of their creations. Every technological breakthrough has its winners and losers.  He is pretty pessimistic about the future. He highly doubts that “through more conveniently packaged, more swiftly delivered information, we will find solutions to our problem…all of this is monumental and dangerous waste of human talent and energy”.

Technological advancements give the illusion that we are solving our problems, but they are just tools to help us get there. Designers need to treat technological advancements as vehicles. There is need to put our core values as humans above IT.

V. Papanek’s position is that the role of design in our society is to bring about change. This position resonates with me. Papanek is one of the first design educators who made the shift towards design research and serious study of end-user needs. In his opinion, designers have a great knowledge when it comes to creation/delivery of new products but their blindspot is to identify the “true needs of men”.

According to Papanek, a designer needs to learn how to think freely and get to the core of a complex problem by using techniques of ideation, synthesis, analysis of the system etc.

Dewey’s idea of incremental practical learning through experiences that have positive reinforcements resonates with me. I think this principle is fundamental for good design practices.

Dewey recognises the need of a student to be included in the educational process. He suggests that not only the external metrics of success are valid but also the internal factors. They trigger the growth of an individual. The idea to design with and not for is similar in nature. In Dewey’s model, a student develops his expertise through building multidisciplinary connections that form structured basis for knowledge that can be easily applied in the real world.  Similar processes uses a designer during synthesis and sense making process. It helps to get insights, ideate and innovate later on. I gave Dewey’s position the highest rating  because a holistic approach to the user experience creates a positive outcome in any given system.


Research Plan or Not an Easy Journey Revealed

In our first Design Research class we split into teams of three. The goal for the next two quarters (IDSE101 & IDSE202) is to work with a nonprofit organization of our choice, from a predetermined list. We were warned that this class has a fast-moving speed and an initial research plan, plus presentation are due in a day after the assignment was proposed.

In one business day we were to establish a relationship with an organization, make an initial request to work with them, and receive a “yes.” Sounds easy on paper, but requires a lot in between — we had to establish a rapport, give them our value proposition, discuss technicalities of project implementation, and begin scheduling interviews with key players. Simply put, we had only a few minutes to inspire leaders of nonprofits to work with us. Ooh. We were told this is exactly what designers in the real world do. 

Let’s get to it!

At the end of the class we received five organizations to work with. It turned out that one out of five assigned orgs did not have a nonprofit status, so we eliminated this choice from our list. 

At 9:30 a.m. the next morning Victoria drove to my house. We drove to Easy Tiger together, chatted virtually with our teammate Sean (sometimes you have to work remotely), and identified which nonprofits are the most favourable to us in terms of their mission or geographical location. Then we went to a shared Google Doc and wrote down our value proposal. 

At 11:30 a.m. we were at the ARC lobby. The art class for children with disabilities was about to start. Unfortunately, a decision maker of that organization had a meeting and we were advised to call her in an hour. For the time being, we went to South Austin and met with staff members of other two nonprofits from our list. No luck there either.

Nowadays, some nonprofits are run like corporations. It takes days to reach a top person and organize a meeting with them. We did not have that time. One of the organizations was a regional chapter of the national nonprofit. They told us at the start that they would not have the authority to take our presented advice or insights by the end of the project; everything has to go through CEO approval in their headquarters. We exchanged emails, but this fact was very discouraging. 

After lunch we recuperated and started making phone calls to other organizations in hope to speak to their leaders. By this point, the idea to go all over the city by car did not seem as lucrative as before. To our surprise all decision-makers were out — we spoke to their mail boxes while they were at important meetings. Over the phone ARC apologised for not being able to make time in their schedules and work with us. The last organization we contacted in person was ARCH at 3:20 p.m. in downtown. All decision-makers were predictably out. We exchanged emails/names of people best to talk to by 3:30 p.m. 

By this point we decided to exercise our autonomy and reach out to other organizations with similar missions. By 6 p.m. that day the organization was found! Latinitas — a nonprofit organization that empowers girls and young women, especially of color, to pursue careers in media, tech, and STEM — agreed to work with us.

latinitas pic
Latinitas Website

It was not an easy assignment for us. It required to think outside of the box, but we were glad we managed to find an organization to present in class.

After the hassle finding an org to work with, putting together a research plan did not seem as intimidating as before.

A design research plan has to have a well-defined structure. It should include a focus statement, a lens through which designers “fish” in hopes of finding valuable insights or problematic areas of the business. Other important pieces of research plan are goals, methodology, info about participants, scripts or interview questions and materials. 

There is a non-written component of the design research plan. Before a team of designers goes to the field, they need to rehearse and role-play some of the activities to ensure they make sense. There is no time for iteration during the interviews.

The focus of our research with Latinitas is to feel what it’s like to be a girl/young woman, especially of color, trying to advance oneself in media, tech, and STEM education. The second aspect of the study is from mentor’s perspective: what it means and what it takes for an adult to support this group of girls. 

For the next two quarters of our research we will interview/shadow Latinitas participants, as well as visit and observe Latinitas mentors and staff. As a part of the cultural probe of our study we will reach Latinitas students as well as alumni of the program, in their own environments or wherever they carry out their activities. 

The other important aspect of our study is to see the program from an organizational perspective. We’d like to spend time observing work processes of mentors involved with Latinitas, in their homes or wherever they conduct mentor sessions. Last but not least, we will observe and understand how staff carry out their work: in their office or conducting workshops and club activities for kids.

The main goal of our study is to observe the program’s processes and strategies so that we can learn to identify strengths and weaknesses and potential opportunities to enhance delivery of program services.

In order to actualize our research as designers, we use certain methodologies that help us observe people’s behavior in their familiar environments and learn from them — we call these methods contextual inquiry and participatory design.

During our meetings/interviews we will also build empathy with our clients, as it helps us to see their world/potential problems how they see it, and make informed decisions later on when synthesising data from the field.

In our research plan we identified the principles of how we are going to approach our meetings/interviews with clients.

  • Go to the participants’ offices, classrooms, or other places that they are familiar with, rather than bringing them into the AC4D space.
  • Conduct interviews prompted by artifacts or behavior, rather than simply following a question/answer script.
  • Develop a series of activities that participants can use to communicate their wants, needs, and desires in a creative way instead of simply in a verbal manner.

Our research will be conducted in classrooms and workshops hosted by Latinitas and in the Latinitas’ office space.

At the time of writing this post, we made a list of 15 participants that represent the front and back of the business. Our list reflects different categories of people we’d like to talk to, including organizers of the program/other staff, mentors, students, and alumni. We’ve started communicating with them to set up meetings/interviews that will take up to 2 hours each.

For each category of participants we created a script with open-ended introductory questions and prepared walkthroughs and exercise activities that would help them to talk about their experiences in a creative way.

As an example for a walkthrough, we’ll ask them to show us a daily activity that’s part of their routine. Our goal in this type of exercise is to observe behavior and develop a feel for what it’s like to be in their position. Later on, when observe enough of these activities, we may notice important behavioral patterns or discrepancies that shine light on their pain points.

Exercises are a great tool to extract stories from the participants. We’ll appeal to their memory, associations, prioritisation, ways of thinking, etc. to get better at understanding them. 

It’s important to mention about this method the goal is not to put additional biases on their answers. In real life when we ask questions, we may unintentionally imply a certain answer, or create a situation in which the person can read our intent and fill in the gap for us. The creative exercises will help us to avoid these biases.

We look forward to working with Latinitas for the two quarters of our time at AC4D, and hope that our rigorous planning/preparation process gives us a chance to act in the field freely and professionally.


Victoria Valadez

Sean Redmond

Zina Semenova


Latinitas Website

Here is the link to our Research Plan. Feel free to read through to get a better idea of our design research preparation process.

Research Plan Doc



Reflection on Bootcamp

It’s been eight years now since I’ve been outside of formal learning experience and I was a bit nervous before orientation week.  I’ve known design by browsing the web, taking online courses from design practitioners back in Russia, and exercising my creative juices by doing things in Sketch/Photoshop.  However, AC4D is an entire new chapter in my life since, for the first time, I’ve got a chance to work together with a group of fellow students and get the feeling of the rigorous process that every designer has to go through in real life.

I’m mostly introverted person and a not-an-easy conversation starter. Sometimes I can be shy and awkward but in the first day Ruby welcomed us to AC4D community with her introduction story and I felt “oh, I can do this, I can also share my story in a similar way”. It felt a bit therapeutic (in a good way) when we all shared our stories before AC4D and got to know each other surprisingly on a  genuine level.

During the Bootcamp there were ups and downs that every designer has to go through. For me personally the synthesis and generating  insights sessions were the most difficult part. While words would come out of my mouth they felt more like butterflies; wisping away what I truly meant. The goal is to come up with concise & sharp phrases that serve as a foundation for future sense-making and idea generation.  Exploring this unknown territory where you follow your intuitions, with no defined right or wrong, can be disorienting. Purposefully, design strategy does not give the tools to prove or disprove designer’s prepositions at this point.

I always thought my strengths were in visuals but surprisingly during the drawing vignettes exercise I felt lost at first recognising that my drawing   techniques has never changed since I was a 7-year old kid. There are three things to consider when drawing this exercise. The first is how to pick the subject matter so it communicates the core of your idea. Second is to keep in mind the composition choices ahead of time and the third is an amount of detail to put. My vignettes were not as effective as I expected and I hope that I can speed up my workflow in the future and become a better visual communicator at the end of the course.

I particularly enjoyed the ethnographic part of design research. It was fun to be outside in spite of 103 degrees and talk to strangers. I liked the humanity of it when you force yourself to be present, open to another individual and try not to over judge or overthink what is happening in front of your eyes.  I also found that idea generation is not as difficult. It is exhausting sometimes but stretches you in a good way letting you think of every existing technology and cultural experiences to provide a context and get an inspiration for a next idea.

Overall, I feel inspired to continue to explore what it means to see and think like a designer. I hope that this coming year will be challenging and  productive so I can grow professionally and personally.