News and blog posts from our students and faculty

Category Archives: Design Research


Wicked Webs & Design Problems By: Crystal Watson & William Shouse

 “The easy problems have been solved.  Designing systems today is difficult because there is no consensus on what the problems are, let alone how to resolve them.”

Each author in this segment argues for design thinking or creativity’s importance in the larger world. The authors’ positions seem to build on each other. Rittel talks about where it came from, Buchanan talks about what it looks like in the world. Paccione, DeBono and Cross take things inside, and noodle on how and where it resides in the brain. They also ponder the whys, whethers and hows about sharing it. Finally, Wyatt takes a ‘what have you done for me lately’ approach and gives us the lowdown on how to share design thinking – but with a mercenary hook.

Rittel identified and named wicked problems, that little thing we all came to AC4D to work on this year. He asks us not to consider what is the “right” thing to do, but the good thing to do.

Buchanan takes Rittel’s lead and talks about what “design thinking” looks like. He gives us a framework, the four orders of design, that push us to consider where and how to apply design thinking. He gives a nod to visual and material design, but also reminds us to consider service design and complex system design as suitable targets for creativity. He evangelizes design thinking as an apt approach to any subject matter, also reminding us that design is inherently cross disciplinary, and indicates that it draws on many kinds of intelligence and knowledge.
Pacione makes a case for design literacy – not just design thinking, telling us that design will have its greatest impact when it is no longer perceived to be in the hands of people who are professional designers and is put back into the hands of everyone. However he states that there are those that are already familiar with the methods of what he considers to be a higher state of design thinking in which he categorizes design and design thinkers into the “Master” or “Iterator of others ideas” and the “Virtuoso” the true design innovator. His methods are laid out in a series of situational diagrams that he uses to back up this theory.

DeBono takes creativity seriously enough that he developed entire systems to alter our thinking patterns, provoke movement, and evaluate their effectiveness. Interestingly enough, one of the huge examples he uses is that of humor to incite creativity, to use the pattern of lateral thinking as the actual process. He insinuates that traditional modes of thinking are artificial, learned, and so distinct that they can literally be put on and taken off as easily as a hat, with his 6 colored hat system of idea organization. Insisting that these tactics can used by anyone he regals us with tales of success from a large telephone corporation and the organizer of the 1984 Olympics. Also sure to remind us he sold them all many of his books.

Cross tells it’s not just inherent, there are ways to polish it up, improve literacy, develop fluency, to put ideas on paper, sketch and iterate to form re-solutions to any problem. For Cross, it’s a mode of thinking, something holistic and vast, not a set of be-hatted party tricks to pull out in front of Japanese businessman (DeBono, p.15).
Design is too important to be left to designers, it should be a discipline in itself, a cultivable skill, possessed to some extent by everyone.

Wyatt is less concerned with the ineffable nature of design thinking than the output, and what it will achieve for her and her business. While she encourages all to utilize design thinking, (even publishing a free download!) she seems to believe that the important work is best left to the designers. She’s strategic in choosing how deeply she steeps regular people in design thinking, and is a bit of a tease. She wants to give customers just enough information so they have a category to understand her greatness, but not enough to be able to do what she does without her.

Posted in Classes, Creativity, Design Research, Interaction Design, Portfolio, Strategy | Leave a comment

Visualizing Process

Two weeks ago in our Interaction Design Research and Synthesis class, we learned about five types of work models we can create to visually represent processes and physical artifacts from research. Put another way, our team (Crystal Watson, Laura Galos, and Lindsay Josal) was able to take the qualitative data from our research around teenagers and their food choices and map them out for everybody to see.

The five types of models we created are:

-Flow: A diagram of actions between people and physical areas, without regard to time.
-Cultural: A diagram of “invisible forces,” or cultural influences that act on and between people.
-Artifacts: Drawings of tangible objects our participants interacted with.
-Physical: A bird’s-eye view map of the space in which we conducted our Contextual Inquiry.
-Sequence: A written list of actions in the order in which they occurred.

Additionally, we have a list of Breakdowns and Design Ideas: A written list of problems observed in all of the other models, along with quick, high-level design ideas that could address these issues.

Although the Breakdowns and Design Ideas list brings together all the problems we observed into a single visualization, we marked each of the models with a little lightning-bolt icon at the place each issue occurred. In total, the models give a different perspective on the actions and interactions that happened during our research. Not only did this give us a new focus on the processes by which things happen, but it also manifested a much richer level of detail than can transcripts alone. Though it felt like we were creating models relatively late in the design process, we feel that modeling would be an excellent tool in early stages of research.

Remembering back to when we conducted our Contextual Inquiries, each member of our group would sit together and recap what happened after every interview and inquiry. Mostly the sessions were casual but helpful for information retention and hearing what the group members picked up on as interesting or found confusing. Going into our next design project, which will last the remaining 32 weeks of our program, we plan to incorporate modeling into our recap sessions to delve into those rich details earlier in the project to better inform synthesis and ideation phases.





Included here are our Flow and Artifact models from one interview session with two teenage participants.

Posted in Classes, Creativity, Design Research, Food, Strategy | Leave a comment

What’s (really) on their plates?: Insights from research on teenage food choices.

In our exploration of teenage food choices and eating habits, our design team, (Laura Galos, Crystal Watson, and Lindsay Josal), has just completed two weeks of synthesis. In the synthesis phase of our project, we thoroughly reviewed all the qualitative data gathered during our two-week research phase, and began to make connections across our teenage participants. Once broad themes emerged, our team drew out insights from each by asking “why?” to each theme. Why might it be the case that teens think others judge them based on their food choices? Why do they perceive food information to be complicated and changeable? Out of the chaos of transcriptions, photos, groupings, and themes, the resulting insights seemed to us simplistic, even obvious. Yet they also seemed to ring true, and we recognized the simplicity came through hindsight, and only after combing through piles of confusing, often conflicting data.


Some insights that most intrigued us were as follows:

  • Teenagers are nostalgic for the way their parents fed them, and regret their current circumstances by comparison
  • Food choices are identity statements in disguise
  • People as young as teenagers have formalized food choices, resulting in opportunity loss

But the insight that seemed most resonant was that food information is too complex for one person. Whether our participants were highly engaged with their eating choices or not, across the board they expressed confusion and reliance on family or friends for direction and as models for eating habits, even as they were expected to exercise greater autonomous choice.

We feel strongly that the insights we developed are both clear and provocative of design ideas that will help us support teenagers as they navigate this odd time in their lives, where they begin to experience autonomy and its inherent risks. While teenagers’ lunch choices may seem relatively low-risk, the consequences of long-term activity can include the construction of a values system (meat or no meat? local or not?), health problems or wellness, and general emotional well-being for years to come. As designers, we hope to create solutions that support teenagers in the making conscientious choices, not just add to the cacophony of conflicting influences they already hear.

To view our synthesis presentation please click here.

Posted in Design Research, Food | Leave a comment

It takes two: Convincing clients of the value of design research

I’ve spent the last two weeks mulling over five readings that were presented under the umbrella of “participatory design”. The readings come from academic to pop-industry publications. What they all have in common is they address the user’s roll in the design process, and its value. The diagram below explores the implications of these reading in the context of participatory design and the influence of user input. Based on this exploration, I have good news.

First, all of the authors believe that the user has some valuable role to play in the design process—none of them advocate that the user’s only role is to buy the product. The “designing with” to “designing for” axis is relative, not absolute. Don Norman, who falls the furthest toward the “design for” end of the spectrum, still maintains that user input gathered through design research has value for improving existing products. Second, none of the authors suggest that the designer is not necessary and can be replaced by user input. The model presented by Liz Sanders, who is furthest toward “designing with”, is still in fact designing with. The designer has an important role to play as partner to the user in the co-creation process.

The third piece of good news is that when each author’s position is plotted on an x-axis of designing with to designing for and a y-axis of the influence of the user on the product, the points can basically be described by straight line. On one hand, this is obvious. The more the user is involved in the design process, the more the user influences the final product. On the other hand, this often the first hurdle to overcome in convincing a client of the value of design research. Yes, it will actually affect the outcome in a way that other data does not!

It takes two


Posted in Design Research, Theory | Leave a comment

Useful Solutions vs. Interesting Observations – or, Research.. hmm, what is it good for, absolutely nothing? Wait say that again??

Let us begin out story with a man named Bill Norman. Bill is an academic who believes that inventors invent because they are inventors, creators create because they are creators. Not out of need, desire for social standing, or to make the next big technological gadget breakthrough that might one day define a persons identity through its shiny silvery exterior. Research is for those who are not these people; that no true groundbreaking innovation has ever come from the tedious expenditure of one man, or a team of individuals who have to seek out the reason for innovation in the first place. This statement is not just provocative and to some people, well, just plain offensive, but also just, well… shallow.

To think that the innovator, the creator, the silent socially awkward genius living in his mothers basement is not in a constant mode of design research, thinking, tinkering, trying and failing… and failing some more until EUREKA, alternating current is born, to me is absurd. Sure this may be true for more product-based iterations, the iphone4, the iphone6? The iwhatever fill in the blank. But what about the first telephone, the first telegraph. The first innovation that allowed a person in one place to audibly communicate with someone on the other side of the world.

This audacious claim inflamed the one Bruce Nessbaum (of Businessweek) who says no way, no how, is Norman correct. That ethnographic research, especially in todays society of crowdsourcing this, and input and opinions from everyone whether deemed to be educated enough to even be an opinion worth taking, sill exists. And certainly not only drives innovation but demands it. How else is one supposed to know what the next world breakthrough will be? AND in that case what constitutes a world altering breakthrough to begin with??

So let’s talk research for a second then. I know this man; some of you may be familiar. Last name Kolko… lots of opinions, and lots of experience to back them up. Research is an interesting and important topic to Jon Kolko from what I gather from reading and speaking with him, but there are really definitive lines to be drawn from this “research” umbrella. There is marketing research, design research, scientific research, and on and on. Lets focus on the design research for now. Jon states that design research is necessary for finding inspiration. That there IS a method to the madness, that from information gathering, fact gathering really, to inference derivation from those facts, to then making an educated yet purely opinionated provocative solution to the problem, or opportunity discovered through the design synthesis process, that the inspiration for innovation is conceived. You find the problem, and you then attempt to provoke an idea to solve it, right?

Well then comes in a man name Bill Gaver. Bill uses a method called cultural probes to gather information and insight to drive the innovation process for design solutions. This is an interesting process because it involves actually giving a user an artifact to interact with, without the implied influence of the researcher, and then receiving back that artifact to then study and either do something with the information, or in Bill’s case, because he is an academic… do nothing but revel in the knowledge that the world has now gained a bit more insight into human behavior.

Artifacts that he notes include things like a disposable camera. What happens when you give someone a disposable camera, say go to town and shoot away at whatever you want, then I am going to study these results and interpret from your active creative process what you are thinking at that time as a human being. Now Bill calls these subjects “non-designers” and the interpreters are the “designers”. What validity do we even get from methods like this if there is no even ideal for creating something to come out of the product of the research? Can you even then call yourself a designer if you make nothing but ideas and inferences? Is this what this what the designer Liz Sanders then calls the process of co-creation?

I don’t think so.

Liz has a different take I think. Rather that completely separating who she considers the “consumer” from the “designer” she instead suggests that we may all kind of be a little of both. Are we all creative? Are we all then, designers because we pin something to pinterest? Is design then just the process of making something that did not in fact exist before whether it is an original idea or not? Pinterest is in fact just a collage of other peoples artifacts collected by an admirer who then claims ownership over the organization of said artifacts which is laid out is a creatively and unique to the individual account owners page. And is this even valuable? What’s the point?

Going back to Nessbaum’s idea, then sure. It is valuable because the masses say so. The social media says so. The masses dictate the innovations of the future, and the innovators need to be listening.

Probably the most well, confusing and sesquipedalianesque of the readings come from the on Paul Dourish, who plots design research into 2 theories. One of the Positivist, in which everything can be traced back to a mathematical derivation, that patterns can be predicted by statistical analysis taken from past experience. And then one of the Phenomenological; that all is a matter of interpretation, of natural progression and is not predictable but organic. My opinion leans towards a little of both, the phenomenological approach, where we are the agents of our future, and yet are inherently influenced by the actions of the past. And that we may actually be able to in some way predict through studying the statistics of the past make assumptions of the actions in the future. I believe both of these research methods should be touched upon if used in order to create a truly effective design solution.

Of all this, this wealth of opinion and information I must say I have to side with Dourish the most. I appreciate the idea that yes we are agents of our own future, but perhaps the positivist approach in research may even be able to dictate how we might react in that free will of agency. This is in conjunction with Kolko’s emphatic and I believe completely accurate and necessary method of synthesis in which to derive a design solution.

But that’s just me

IDSE102-PositionDiagram - Research-01

Posted in Classes, Design Research | Leave a comment

(East) Austin Food Guide: Challenges and Opportunities in Urban Nutrition

A few weeks ago we shared our research plan (here).  Since then my team, Eugenia Harris and Lauren Segapeli, and I have been out talking to people and collecting data to fuel the next stage of our design process.  We began our research with a focus on how people living in food deserts budget for, shop for and prepare food. Exploring particularly people’s beliefs around nutrition and food availability and the priorities and constraints that govern their choices. A food desert is an urban area where fresh food and produce are not easily available to residents who do not have cars.

Over the course of two weeks we conducted ten interviews with people in three basic groups: People grocery shopping in East Austin, people working to improve food access and nutrition and patrons of  Austin area food banks.

The purpose of our research was to help us, as designers, to build an empathetic understanding of the people we hope to serve and to steep ourselves in a rich and varied data set that will provoke new insights and design ideas. As we mentioned in our research plan, one of the methods we used to get this data is called Contextual Inquiry. Contextual Inquiry focuses on watching, learning about and perhaps participating in the user’s tasks and activities. The researcher becomes the apprentice and the user becomes the master, sharing his or her expertise in his or her own life. It is a way to tap into the tacit knowledge that we all have that allows us to do the work of living our lives but that we are not consciously aware of or which seems too low level to be worth mentioning. It is exactly these quirky, specific details, these workarounds and new uses that provoke new insights and ideas.

For example, one of our participants is a patron of local food banks. In our first interview he told us all about how going to the food bank works. The information he gave us was all useful and true, but no where near as rich as the data we got the following week when we went to the food bank and he taught us how to do everything from arriving early to save a place in line, to signing in and selecting food.

As we conducted our research we kept the focus intentionally loose because we were aware that the concept of food desert might not ultimately be the framework that was most useful for understanding the situation in Austin. That flexibility served us well.  We found that geographic location wasn’t the major constraint on most of the people we spoke to. Many people, even if they were struggling financially did have cars, although not always money for gas. We also saw that people rely on family and community networks that stretch across neighborhoods to help each other access food and to share food resources. We are interested to see how these informal networks might connect with the type of support people in the government and community are providing and explore other connections and disconnects between these different groups.

We learned a great deal doing this research and were constantly reminded that our interviewee’s point view is not our own. It has been a privilege to meet these people and have them share their lives with us.

Our presentation deck is attached below. Next we will launch into to the synthesis phase of the design process. Look for an update on that in the next few weeks.

East Austin Food Guide-Research Presentation


Posted in Design Research, Food, Methods | Leave a comment

IMPOSITION TO INFLUENCE: The designers role in affecting a system of beliefs

The dictionary defines a value system as being an open set of morals, ethics, standards, preferences, belief systems and world views that come together through self-organizing principles to define an individual, a group or a culture.

So what if the organization of these principals is not so self defined?

What if these principals are molded, formed and influenced by ideas and objects that surround the self whether intentionally or not, influencing the belief systems and preferences that define a person as the person they are.

In the past couple of weeks we as a class keyed in on 6 author’s writings. Some being recognized designers, some design historians, some design thinkers. Through reading and re-reading and analyzing the scanned pages of 6 very different theories and experiences, notated with dialects from the translated Italian version to very straightforward literary magazine articles; I couldn’t help but notice that each author, whether they were a working designer or not, all had a sense of there being some sort of behavioral shift that came out of the end product of a design experiment or idea. As if the designer was given a power to control the thoughts and actions of their subjects through manipulation, experience, product, or education. Some I found a little off putting I have to admit. To be a designer to me is not to revel in the idea that you can puppet a community into jumping off the commodity cliff, but ideally perhaps educate thorough innovation, or aid in a person or communities hardships through easily accessible tools.

Although it seemed that my final conclusion was just more questions about “how do you know if you are doing it right??” I was at least driven to put down on paper my thoughts on how the 6 authors we studied fit on a simple, and very biased scale of a designers role to either manipulate and impose a value system into a public, work to adopt and understand the value system of their public, or to try to gently influence and broaden a public already established value system.

So here you go, my own personal version of a scale of importance that the role of design has, as I see it, through the ideas of Bernays, Le Dantec, Vitta, Pilloton, Dewey, and Margolin.

Click to Enjoy

Posted in Classes, Creativity, Design Research, Portfolio, Reflection, Theory | Leave a comment

Research Plan: Teenagers’ Food Choices and Eating Habits

Design research team: Crystal Watson, Lindsay Josal, Laura Galos.

In our Interaction Design Research and Synthesis class, we’ve learned that the design process starts with research. Specifically, we are learning to use Contextual Inquiry to gain understanding and empathy for people who may be quite different from us. Starting from a shared interest in nutrition, we were curious about how younger people navigate decisions around food, especially when they are away from planned meals with their families. Our team has created a research plan to guide our inquiry into the food choices and eating habits of teenagers. For more information, you can download our research plan.

Posted in Design Research, Methods | Leave a comment

Family Matters: Addiction

For this first assignment, our team (William Shouse, Jeff Patton and Maryanne Lee) developed a research plan that was focused around the impact of addiction to drugs and alcohol on families and how it alters the family dynamic at various stages of addiction. We started by coming up with a list of all the people and contexts we could talk to and explore. Thinking about people in different contexts revealed the different topics that our team thought we could learn the most about. These topics included relationships, recovery, the cycle of addiction, consequences, support structures, environment and safety.


One of the biggest challenges we faced in doing this for the first time was crafting a plan that could stand entirely on its own without any supplemental clarity from our team. In trying to balance the complexity of access to participants in the contexts we wanted, the team also struggled to determine what the right level of detail and specificity should be.

Like the rest of our peers, we were a new team that had never worked together before. Building trust in each other quickly was a direct result of the respect we had for one another’s time and personal boundaries. Should we be the team executing this research plan, we strongly believe that the trust we have established in each other would be translated into the quality of the quick relationship building needed in order to be invited into the lives of the research plan’s participants.

Click here to view our full research plan.


Posted in Classes, Design Research | Leave a comment

Eating in a Food Desert

In our Interaction Design Research and Synthesis course, we’ve been discussing Contextual Inquiry as a method of gaining understanding and empathy for people affected by wicked problems. Contextual Inquiry facilitates learning through immersing yourself within the context of the problem and inviting participants to teach you about their daily life.

Starting with the theme of nutrition and the prompt, “eating healthy in a food desert,” our team (Samara Watkiss, Eugenia Harris, and Lauren Segapeli) began by exploring possible people and contexts where we could learn about this theme. We debated how to incorporate the notion of nutrition without presupposing we know better than our participants what they should eat, and how explicitly to address the issue of poverty. After a period of discussion and workshopping we modified the focus to reflect those concerns, and now agree that the next step is to put it to the test. We’ll use this focus to set up and conduct contextual inquiries and then evaluate it based on the data it allows us to collect. Here’s our starting point:

The focus of our research is how people living in “food deserts” budget for, shop
for, and prepare food. We’ll explore people’s beliefs around nutrition and food
availability and the priorities and constraints that govern their choices.

So what is a food desert anyway?

We are working from an understanding that a food desert is an area where affordable fresh food and produce is not easily accessible to residents who do not have cars. This may be characterized by the absence of supermarkets, and the availability of convenience stores and fast food outlets.

Although there are important intersections between the availability of fresh food and poverty, and we are curious about the specifics of these intersections, we are not attempting to screen interviewees based on income level.

In both our decision to use a loose definition of ‘food desert’ — not attempting to define a certain radius without grocery stores or other metric — and taking an open approach to the role of poverty, we are attempting to really jump into qualitative research. For now what we care about is the experience of the people we will be talking to. If an individual feels like he or she can not access fresh food because of what is available in the neighborhood, however he or she defines neighborhood, that is a point of view we want to carry into our design process.

Research Plan

From our focus statement, we have crafted a research plan by outlining the people we will talk to, the context in which we will interact with these people, and the types of topics we hope to discuss. We have tried to imagine and troubleshoot some of the difficulties associated with getting into these situations. After all, “can I watch you grocery shop and ask you to explain to me what you are thinking at each moment,” is not a typical request! However, as with the focus statement, we expect this plan will change as we actually begin to implement these strategies.

Check out our full research plan here »

Posted in Design Research, Methods | Leave a comment