The Methods of Design Research & The Power It Can Wield

The concept of design research is an interesting one for me. Research conjures up thoughts of science, and numbers, and p-values. It makes me think of a hypothesis and of measuring results. But, what I’m beginning to come to terms with is that design research isn’t traditional research at all.

Research in the context of design might be better characterized as a search for inspiration. There is no statistical significance but rather intentional bias. You aren’t trying to understand what is happening, you are trying to understand what could be. Design research, in my view, is about gathering as much information as you want, however you want, and using all of those inputs to spark something new.

Beyond the question of how to conduct this research, another interesting question is how powerful can it be? By understanding people and their behaviors, are designers able to identify and solve really big, complex, wicked problems? Are we able to truly innovate? Or, is design research best for identifying opportunities for incremental improvement?

For this project, I considered first, how 8 authors believe a designer should be going about understanding the behaviors of others. Is it by observing from afar? Is it by asking someone? Is it by putting oneself in the position of another and trying to emulate the same experience? This is charted on an x axis where the left is “designing for” a user and the right is “designing with” a user.

Then, I’ve added a y axis where I will plot how powerful each designer believes design research can be in solving these messy, wicked problems.

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  1. Donald Norman – In the context of the other 7 authors, Norman’s opinion is extremely thought provoking. He characterizes design research a luxury without much functional return. It is technology, he argues, and the way people organically adopt it that leads to innovative breakthroughs.
  2. Jodi Forlizzi – Her work (not too dissimilar from Norman’s opinion) is product first.  She seeks to understand the “complex context” between a product, a user, and the surrounding society by distant observation. Once the context is better understood, small adjustments can be made to the product.
  3. Fulton Suri – Suri asserts that there can be significant power in design research. A lot of that research is conducted by designers physically emulating the role that a user would typically take. By doing this, she sees the potential for sustainable innovation.
  4. William Gaver – He remains removed from his research subjects, giving them only Probes with which to capture their experiences. From there, he and his team are on their own, coming up with brand new ideas and using the results of their research only to job their own creative juices. While not explicit, he seems to suggest there are no limitations to the potentials of this work.
  5. Christopher A. Le Dantec – He clearly outlines that he believes design research should be approached “not as design for … but as design with, recognizing [users] as socially legitimate and masters of their own choices.” He takes on big and complicated challenges, like homelessness, and seeks to address related challenges in tandem with the end user.
  6. Paul Dourish – Admittedly, Dourish was difficult to place on my x and y axis because he writes in more theoretical terms, and less about the application of design research. However, he introduces a very nuanced and powerful way of thinking about context and its importance in design research. Based on his “notion of context in ubiquitous computing” I would argue that he sees a lot of power in the ability to deeply understand a user’s behavior and the way that behavior impacts a surrounding world. If he were to engage in design research, I image he would do so hand in hand with the users.
  7. John Kolko – Kolko’s design research methods focus only on what can be gleaned directly from a user. No statistics, science, no numbers will do. He believes that designer’s ethnographic methods of design research can lead to finding root problems. Only then, can “engineering, supply-chain management” and other traditional business functions be added in to achieve real innovation.
  8. Liz Sanders – In her approach to design research. She’s focused on “co-creation” and sees the designer as a facilitator who empowers the user to create for themselves. Sanders’ sees no limitation to what this can accomplish, either in an organization or in the world at large.

lauren v2 theory

What Does a Designer Do? A Rumination on Magic

Ask what a designer does, and you’ll get a million different answers. This is apparent every time someone asks me what I’m studying here at AC4D. Is it like graphic design, or UX? What are we designing, and for whom? I tell them I perform research into human behavior and provide insights into how to improve systems, interactions, and general human experience. Their eyes glaze over.

The public writ large may not know what we do, but designers working in the field do—right? Well, it depends who you ask. There is general consensus that designers should work with users, and the field of interaction design rests on this tenet. But what does it mean to work with users, and how?

Jodi Forlizzi writes that “Designers understand, explore, and create based not only on data in the world, but also intuitive judgment.” This is a common belief among designers, but her approach to gathering data is unique. Her Product Ecology framework encourages designers to study products and how users interact with them to understand human motivation and behavior. This demonstrates an archetypal “designing for users” mindset. Her research may involve users, but, ultimately, it is the designer’s “intuitive judgment” that reveals new methods to better serve the user’s needs.

This “intuitive judgment” is something like magic, and Forlizzi embodies what I call the “Designer as Magician” approach. Many designers believe that we should interview users and test our solutions with them, but that  designing should be done by those who wield the magic. Jane Fulton Suri, who espouses corporate ethnography and experience prototyping, adheres to this notion. Don Norman, who believes designers mostly add incremental improvements to existing technology, adheres to this approach (he just doesn’t find the magic to be very impressive). And Chris Le Dantec, who understands the importance of designing with users, nevertheless holds the designer at a remove. His understanding of different publics, a concept he borrows from John Dewey, belies the idea that the designer can flit between communities at will and impart their magic skills.

On the other side of the spectrum is the “Designer as Organizer” approach. In this view, everyone can and should be involved in the design process, on a more or less equal footing with the designer. It is the designer’s job to bring those people together and help them organize their creativity and insights. This will allow them to direct the design process in a way that truly addresses their needs and values.

Liz Sanders is a strong proponent of this approach. She assumes that all people are creative and, given the chance, can contribute to the design process. Thus, she supports co-creation, especially as a means of generating social value.

Paul Dourish takes this one step further, arguing that, because every user’s context is unique and in constant flux, we must create tools that allow for user input and individual user design whenever possible. Bill Gaver, meanwhile, has his own approach wherein he gives participants creative prompts to generate insights into their attitudes and behaviors. This process, which he calls “Probology,” is used to generate unique designs that are more the result of creative play than research.

Finally, we have Jon Kolko, the founder of AC4D. His book Exposing the Magic of Design lends its name to the dichotomy presented here. Does Kolko believe that design is a form of magic? And when you expose the magic, does it cease to exist?

What Does a Designer Do? diagram

In the above diagram, I’ve placed Kolko in the “Designer as Organizer” category. He certainly believes that designers have a special skill, so it was difficult to place him here. Input from our class discussions—specifically his advice to continually solicit feedback and invite users to evaluate our themes and insights—has inspired me to place Kolko toward the “Designer as Organizer” pole. In addition, by arguing for the strategic incorporation of stakeholder buy-in, he shows attention to the need to organize public opinion (and corporate opinion) around a designer’s work.

Still, Kolko’s approach to design, despite incorporating users’ feedback, bears the hallmark of some of our other corporate-minded designers, including Norman, Fulton Suri, and Forlizzi, who ultimately argue that a designer must create something for someone at the behest of someone else. This mental hierarchy inspires me to place him toward the “Designing for” position—a somewhat surprising conclusion, given the fact that we are taught at AC4D to design for social good.

But I guess we’re not taught to design with social good, are we?

What makes a meaningful Design Research?

There are many ways of searching and finding a problem, but not all of them have long-term and meaningful solutions. Here, I will attempt to describe some researches and explaining why they are working for certain contexts and how they are not. I made a diagram that explains this in a better more visual way. The horizontal axis is talking about how the research is focusing in working with the participants or working for them, which have can make the research have different results. The vertical axis describes if the research is based on a qualitative or a quantitative result of the investigation.

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I have named each author a different way so that we can all understand a little bit of what are they talking about. Now that you have seen who and why these people inspired me to do this type on diagram. I will start saying that I am going to be talking about the diagram from least important to most important, that is from the bottom right corner to the top right corner.

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Liz Sanders had three different values of co-creation that I thought of them as separate and very different researches, so I will describe them in the order that they have in the diagram, I have them numbered for a better understanding of which is what.

The value number three is the Monetary Value it is mainly fueled by making efficient ways of gaining more money. It only addresses short-term needs and has no depth of emotional bonding with the users/customers, that means that if a new company comes along and sells the user something a little bit better, the user will not hesitate and change companies. The designers roll is to make marketing and creative solutions that bring more profit to the company, not looking at their actual needs. And it is based on a quantitative result, numbers and data are more important than experiences and stories.

We continue with Don Norman or how I address him “but first… technology”, he talks about Technology innovation and that means to have a product that either fails or has a slow acceptance because people are not ready for them. They are the inventors of new and useful products and the needs get discovered afterwards, because technology enables the designers. The role of the designer starts when there is an actual product because as Normal says, we just improve existing products. With quantitative results because it is based in scientific facts and no interest in working with the participants because technology does not bases their facts in actual people or needs and wants.

Liz Sander’s number two comes next, with the Use or experience value that is fueled to transform customers into users, making them have an emotional connection that allows them to trust the brand, having them then buy their product and being the brand’s fruitful followers, resulting with a stable and lovable brand. The role of the designer is to find and design those emotional bonds and to build that trust so it is sort of leaning to a marketing approach. The results are both quantitative and qualitative because they want to get involved in their follower’s needs and wants.

Jon Kolko has too been separated in two completely different ideas that companies cannot seem to understand the differences. Numbering them to understand which one is which.

Marketing Research is the research number two, it is a process that link the users and marketers to identify new problems or opportunities. It is pretty similar to the Value of Use and Experience mentioned before, it is all about finding and exploiting those emotional connections. The designer forms part of a tangible and tactical part of the process. The content is both qualitative and quantitative, but I would lean more in a quantitative approach because it bases more on masses and not on the uniqueness of the participants.

In the quadrant above we have Bill Gaver with his clue interpretations. Cultural probes as they call them, are a collection of evocative tasks for inspirational responses (clues). I would not call this a Research as it is not attempting to find worth solving problems. It is 100% qualitative, as they base their study in stories about participants with no meaning because they don’t even know them. So for me it would be like looking at a random person’s Instagram Feed and coming up with a real (stereotypical) story of who they are. The results (if there are any) are mostly self-centered, because the role of the designer in this case is to interpret the tasks with their own experiences.

Changing to the right-side quadrant we go with Chris LeDantec and his attempt to empower the homeless community. This research consists in a better version of Bill Gaver’s probes and results. It also starts with a camera but ends up with interesting and game changing solutions. The role of the designer is to find making insights, designing solutions and testing them with the actual public bearing in mind that to do that there has to be an involvement of Inclusive design in order to be reaching to the whole community. It is al first working more for the participants as there is only one interview that consists in explaining the pictures taken, but in the second phase of the research they empower and involve the community in the designing and testing of the product.

Moving to Jane Fulton Suri with her Experience prototyping, it consists in enabling the users to gain fist-hand appreciation of a product or service through active engagement. This is helpful if the experience reaches a holistic approach, making the participants “look and feel” the same way they would have done with the actual product or service. Then the role of the designer is crucial, making an integrated and holistic experience rather than an artifact. It is a qualitative result because it is based on real experiences, although they can’t be measured because each person’s experience is unique.

Jodi Forlizzi talks about Product Ecology, it is a theoretical design framework of how products evoke social behavior and describe conditions of change. So basically, how a product functions and what can be better in the way participant behave around it. They have to see the problem and also see what is around the problem to get a better understanding of who are using it and in what context. The role of the designer is about seeking problems and improving existing products. It is a qualitative result because they are trying to understand behavior surrounding a product use in the context where it is usually used.

Jon Kolko’s number one in the diagram would be Design Research. It focuses on the people and the attempts to understand their culture, looking directly at the problem but also around it to have a holistic mindset. Designers have a strategic role, where they are part of participation and discussions, using their ability to think, analyze and produce. It is both qualitative and quantitative but the results are more about content in stories and field patterns.

Last but not least we have Liz Sanders and the Value number one, the Social Value it is fueled by a co-creative, longer-term and humanistic sustainable approach. At the beginning of the research there is no knowledge of what the outcome is going to be by having open ended questions. It is pretty similar to John Kolko´s Design Research. The meaning is in the behavioral conversations with the participants. The designer is included in the whole process of the research. The co-creation with the participants is critical for it to work correctly.

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So to wrap up I would say that in order to have a meaningful Research we should attempt to have a co-creation and collective and people-centered way of working. Understanding our participants and the problems worth solving. And a meaningful Design research would be the same but including the designer in the whole process, as well as having strategic ideas in the synthesis and insight phases.

Beyond the Horse

A cup of coffee (content which is both functional and social) doesn’t exist without the activity of a global system of persons (context as activity continually reproduced through interpretation and reinterpretation, individually or collectively). In the case of coffee that global system involves people planting, growing, harvesting, processing, auctioning, exporting, shipping, importing, transporting, roasting and brewing. What feels like such a simple, given pleasure is actually a highly complex global commodity that equals varying degrees of livelihood for very many people. 

At the cafe level, we brew coffee considering three important variables – strength, extraction and brew ratio. Plotting the relationship between these factors, we aim to achieve the optimum balance that will produce the most naturally occurring sweetness in that coffee.

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We use tools like refractometers and smart scales and thermometers and cupping spoons and grinders. And we rely on science and math and graphs in addition to our own palate, developed over time and with practice. Often times we will understand palate as intuition and lean more heavily on this because nobody wants to do math at 5am in the morning.

Why is this relevant to understanding the role of design research? Context isn’t just ‘there’, Paul Dourish writes, “but is actively produced, maintained and enacted in the course of the activity at hand.” I believe what Dourish is driving towards is that context and content are not mutually exclusive but produce meaning and value when we consider the interplay and interconnectedness between the two. 

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The graph is charted to reflect how the methodologies described by each author are indicative of an approach more concerned with Designing With People, as in participatory design or co-creation methods, versus Designing For People, as in product ecology or experience prototyping. The Y axis is reflective of the authors bent – towards a focus on content, as in objects, technologies or interventions, versus a focus on context, dynamic interpretations which are continually reimagined and sustained by activity or interaction. 

Through learning about different design research approaches, and considering the ethical implications of each, I’ve developed my own perspective on what the role of the designer is in 2019. We are given access to many opportunity spaces through individual stories which is a privilege and a responsibility that we shouldn’t take lightly. What’s lacking from the conversations about the functional and social roles of designed objects, technologies or interventions is the possibility that those can also have an integrative role. 

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Today’s designer should consider their role, then, as one of Integration. Not only integrating context with content but also, bridging the divide between an organization and its people; merging the functional with the social; and cultivating participation between the designer and their publics. 

I’ll leave you with a quote from the spiritualist, Parker Palmer, that was instrumental in my decision to leave the coffee industry after fifteen years. It compelled me to consider how else I might participate in the world and ultimately led me here. 

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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.

eight_authors_diagram

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.

Designing With/For Whom?

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.

designing-with-for-whom_diagram

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.

Losing the Battle for Brevity.

For the last several weeks we have been reading the work of designers and theorists – Maurizio Vitta, Neil Postman, Victor Papanek, John Dewey and Edward Bernays. The goal of which is to think critically about the merits and role of design in society, and to consider the ethics & responsibility we have to the objects themselves as well as the persons for whom we are designing. I should say in learning to design for people, we are really learning to design with people. 

I’ve identified a key concern that each theorist discussed and how those concerns inform the functional methods that are proposed, the ethical implications that creates in our role as designers and finally, how the progression of their ideas mimics the structure for how we are learning design research here at AC4D. 

Vitta sees material objects as “confirmation of the prevailing values” as they offer insight into the production and manipulation of social meanings or social logic. He is quick to recognize that a ‘culture of design… is meant to suggest the totality of disciplines, phenomena, knowledge, analytical instruments, and philosophy that the design of useful objects must take into account.” He charges designers to think critically about what we design and why. In other words, he speaks to the notion that we ought to find problems worth solving – something we are afforded through the flexibility of the medium and the framework for social analysis it provides. 

While his address isn’t directed to designers, Postman offers up the need for an organizing moral framework to emerge as we are largely unable to parse through the overabundance of information. The problem however is that most of this ‘filtering of knowledge’ is done by people in power – people with special knowledge and special language that reinforces the status quo while restricting access to the common folk. Design has the potential to make our lives more meaningful and more humane and the sensemaking process requires we learn from diverse perspectives and experience as that allows greater access to new insights and avenues for inquiry. 

What do we do once we’ve made sense of the problem? Papanek argues that problem solving is more difficult when we can’t access creativity and creativity, he argues, is inhibited by perceptual, cultural, emotional, and associational blocks. He speaks about a need to broaden our scope of experience well beyond the limitations of our own and suggests rapid, free associative ideation and iteration as one method for countering these blocks and incorporating new ideas. He summarizes Postman’s argument in saying, “By bringing more than one language to bear on a problem, we obtain more insight.” 

Even though he wasn’t writing for the design profession specifically, I found Dewey’s thinking around experience to be the most actionable in terms of designing. He explains experience as a moving force which made me think about the way we can build on experience for cumulative effect with the purpose of fundamentally altering attitudes, habits, or behaviors. Generally, if we are concerned with addressing problems worth solving then we are also concerned with needing to influence majority opinions and democratize access by designing with the actual views of the actual public. 

He goes on to argue that we need to articulate what experience means before we can begin to create for experience. He wrote, “of, by, or for… each [is] a challenge to discover and put into operation.” I found it so interesting that the person who dedicated the most time articulating around the necessity for defining experience was also the person who most understood that, while thoughtful articulation is a critical component in the design process, there is an activity of language that needs to bear itself out. Clear and coherent ideas are only valuable insofar as they are practically organized and executed. Naturally, I’m beginning to drink the language kool-aid of this program and Less Talking, More Doing came to mind. 

Lastly, Bernays – the mastermind behind the propaganda machine. While I don’t think Bernays thinks very highly of people and sees them as easy pawns, what he offers to my perspective on design is the real need to cultivate buy-in when bringing something new to market. Shifting public opinion relies on broad acceptance and is most quickly achieved through group adherence and the cooperation of major stakeholders. Building on the recurring theme of language, Bernays argues for an economy of words – adapting messaging for clarity and accessibility so ideas can quickly flow across a variety of platforms. 

Ultimately, after we’ve discovered problems worth solving, after we’ve done sensemaking of the information gathered through a user-focused research strategy, after we’ve done hundreds of ideation exercises to arrive at meaningful insights, and after we’ve built something real and tangible to bring to market, we owe our stakeholders a value proposition that shares a compelling vision for the future. 

This has been my takeaway. Bless your heart if you’ve read this far.

lil lil

Design, Four Ways

Two weeks as an AC4D student down, but the reality of what it means to design has just begun to take shape. With the question of design’s role in society, we were tasked with making sense of the following pieces of literature.

 

Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How by Edward L. Bernays

Design with a Cause and Creativity vs. Conformity by Victor Papanek

Informing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

The Meaning of Design by Maurizio Vitta

The Need of a Theory of Experience by John Dewey

 

These authors came from several fields, some in design, some not. They produced their work at various times, the 1920s, the 70s, the 90s. All differences considered, compelling patterns began to emerge. Each reading captured a unique perspective which built upon the viewpoint of another. 

 

With my interpretation of the readings, I answered two questions from each author’s perspective. What is design? Moreover, what is good design? I described summaries of their attitudes in figure 1.

 

positions

figure 1.

 

Upon further review, distinct relationships began to form. Authors, Bernays, Papanek, Postman, Vitta and Dewey, understood design within the larger context of four ideas: language, resources, experience, and power. From their point of view, the purpose of design was defined by these terms.

 

Through the lens of language, design became a vehicle for communication, an expression of social relationships, and an external phenomenon. If viewed as a resource, design is a reaction, a tangible material, and a solution. Framing design as a source of experience, it becomes a catalyst for behavior and an opportunity for interaction. In its relationship with power, design can influence, deviate from expectation, and serve as a source of failure. 

 

Within this framework, design was a basis for language, a creator of resources, a source of experience, and a foundation for power.

 

In the following figure, four circles represent design’s role within the context of these four themes. As seen below, each author is placed inside the circle that correlates strongest with his viewpoint as described in figure 1.

Artboard Copy2

 

figure 2.

 

If design spans these overarching ideas, what qualifies as good design from each perspective? Indicators for good design must adapt to the context in which design operates. 

 

In its relationship with language, I believe design should assess its own voice, seek to understand social implications, and address the cultural context of its surroundings. As a resource, design should respond to the needs of people, minimize waste, and seek to identify real problems. As a source of experience, design should value our humanity and generate opportunities for social progress. Finally, in its relationship with power, I believe design should seek to understand its power, explore potential consequences, and claim responsibility for outcome.

 

The graph below ranks viewpoints based on criticality to the modern designer’s role in society. The graph is further broken down to identify where each viewpoint most strongly associates. 

graph

figure 3.

 

Experience, language, resource, power –

 

Design’s purpose is defined by these terms, but collectively, these definitions represent society at large. So, what makes for strong indicators of good design now?

 

If we view design’s ultimate purpose as the benefit of society, there are countless questions to unpack. Many of which call for my own self-reflection. How do I define benefit? What qualifies as progress? When “society” advances, who is left behind?

 

Two weeks at AC4D down. Let my search for answers begin. 

 

Does design require an economic revolution?

As we consider the future of design and our role in it for the last two weeks, e have been reading several perspectives on the role of design in society. Although the perspectives of authors we have read have spanned beyond the field of design to include educational psychologists, propagandists, and media theorists, all have something to say about the transmission of culture and the responsibility that people have towards future generations. Whether products or services, technological or aesthetic, designers are creating the future through the things they design. The academic perspectives on this challenge range from the acutely naive to the obsessively fastidious, from myopic focus to universal theories. To varying degrees, each is concerned with the current trajectory of society, from Bernays’ opening rumination about the tendency of widely held opinions to be slow to change and reactionary to Postman’s near panic about the ravages of technology on modern life.

A brief overview of some of the theorists we have read:

Dewey (1938): Societal transmission of knowledge is achieved through the accumulation of experiences at the level of the individual. Experiences and their context are foundational to the development of humans. Through a thoughtful understanding of the component parts and mechanisms of experience, we can design more impactful ways of teaching.

Vitta (1984): Design tells us who we are, and as the communicative purpose of objects increases, the functional purpose of those objects declines. The things one creates are an expression of values, preferences, and identity. The things one consumes tell that person more about themselves and signal those attributes to others. This theory of design is in dialogue with a theory of the practice of design.

Papanek (1971): Design has the potential to change the world by solving meaningful problems, and designers have an ethical responsibility to design for the needs of people. Learned preferences and aversions limit designers’ scope of practice and ability to solve problems creatively. Irrational beliefs and values shape the preferences of consumers, manufacturers, and investors.

Bernays (1928): People with the means and inclination to influence the public can have an outsized role in determining the path society takes. Simple tactics can have an enormous effect on public opinion and behavior. People who chose to manipulate public sentiment are preventing people from being culturally stagnant and will usually not misuse their influence.

Postman (1990): We have become overconfident in the ability of technology to solve problems while underestimating its negative consequences. Solutions are more likely to come from other disciplines. The existential challenges of human experience are not meaningfully addressed by technological innovation.

While juxtaposing any article against any other leads to interesting insights, I am considering all five articles for what they tell us as a disparate but thematically connected body of work.

I first considered the scale at which each writer is operating. Dewey is concerned with the minutia. He develops a whole vocabulary to define the ways that the internal, external, past, present, positive, negative come together to create human experience and identity as the product of their interactions and their environment. Vitta is reflecting on people at the scale of their relationship to individual objects, and the qualities of that relationship. Like Dewey’s, his theory of the relationship between humans and designed objects is individualized. This perspective is foundational to understanding a societal perspective.

Papanek, Bernays, and Postman each move further away from an individualist perspective towards a societal one. While Papanek is concerned with the individual responsibility of designers to society, his focus is largely on the profession of design as a whole and the opportunities and missteps of designers collectively. Bernays’ focus is on large segments of a society that have opinions that can be shaped, cultivated or redirected. Postman’s view is the farthest removed of them all looking at the global effect of technology on humans.

ethics-continuum-1

While this view may make for tidy categories and organize the information neatly, it didn’t help me find new insights about these writers. In particular, the cluster of Bernays, Papanek, and Postman on the right side seemed problematic. Could I picture a tidy discourse happening between the three given their coming framing of the relevance of design at a societal level? I could not. I pictured Papanek berating Bernays for promoting consumption for consumption’s sake as Postman chided him for his shortsightedness in not being able to see the negative possibilities of social manipulation. I could see Papanek and Postman getting along as they lamented the growing Pacific trash gyre and proliferation of redundant technical products in homes across the world while homelessness, hunger, and war went unaddressed. Could I find an organizational system that honors these similarities between Papanek and Postman and acknowledges the gap that existed between them and Bernays? As I went back to my notes and marginalia, I found a word that appeared often in my notes, but only once in the texts we were reading, “capitalism.”

Each of the five writers is writing from the perspective of someone living within a capitalistic economy and many indirectly address the interplay of market forces on design choices. While each author engages with the idea of capitalism to varying degrees, we can still consider how compatible their theories are with a capitalist system as opposed to a system that might incentivize work, production, and design differently.

Postman, the only one to directly speak about capitalism, mentions capitalism in a negative light in a harried parable about misuse of technology that blames the existence of capitalism on monks who invented clocks as a means of timekeeping (ignoring the fact that commerce, accounting, taxation, and labor markets all preceded the clock). The crux of Postman’s argument is that “the computer and its information cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane. The computer cannot provide an organizing moral framework. It cannot tell us what questions are worth asking. It cannot provide a means of understanding why we are here or why we fight each other or why decency eludes us so often, especially when we need it the most.” One imagines that one could substitute “money” for “computers” in this passage and still elicit Postman’s agreement. He calls out overpaid software engineers and imagines “what might be accomplished if this talent and energy were turned to philosophy, to theology, to the arts, to imaginative literature or to education? Who knows what we could learn from such people – perhaps why there are wars, and hunger, and homelessness and mental illness and anger.” While technology bears the blame in his critique the system of capitalism that rewards these technological pursuits cannot be considered compatible with his worldview.

While not directly engaging with the role of capitalism in influencing design, Papanek harshly criticizes advertisers for “persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care.” Papanek, also scolds designers for choosing the wrong problems to solve, for “sex[ing] up objects…making things more attractive to mythical consumers” (or a Vitta might say, increasing the “signification and communication value” of objects). Instead, Papanek wants designers to improve conditions for humanity and the environment. Yet, he stops short of implicating our economic system as a force that results in design work being allocated to solve aesthetic problems rather than making changes that would positively affect lives. He details the experience of trying to design a better toilet that would require less water as an environmental boon, but unquestioningly embeds this the observation that his innovation is going to allow a toilet manufacturer to make more money by selling toilets to people who don’t actually need to have their old toilet replaced (as the environmental effects can be replicated by putting a brick or two in the tank).

Vitta has a similarly complicated relationship with capitalism. He quotes Karl Marx, including the voice of capitalism’s ideological opposition in his writing, lamenting how “the character of commodities…takes on the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things is only the already determined social relations which exist between the same men.” Basically saying the reason a rich man’s Rolex is judged to be better than a poorer man’s Timex is because we already value the rich man for his ability to accumulate wealth, the watch just echoes that sentiment. The positionality was never about the objects, but about the men. He also says that we need a “different, more balanced relationship with things” and worries about the “knot of economic interest that closes around use objects.” However, he states, “It does not seem that attempts to escape the market’s logic…have been very useful.”

Postman, Papanek, and Vitta’s theories could fairly be characterized as capitalist critiques or varying degrees.

On the other hand, Bernays describes groups (hat sellers and margarine producers) that have a vested interest in transforming public opinion to the benefit of their own industries but conspicuously doesn’t address the financial incentives for these groups to advance a positive narrative about their products. In fact, he moralizes the changes in public opinion advanced by these groups saying “the women in this country [when changing their hat preferences and purchasing habits] quite rightly accepted the leadership of the fashion groups.” For Bernays, like many of his era, the successful capitalist was virtuous. His conviction that “the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is…one of the manifestations of democracy.” Reminds me of the anti-democratic, capitalistic arguments at the heart of the Citizens United Supreme Court case: that money is speech, and that having monied interests influencing political discourse is an expression of democratic ideals. Bernays is no socialist.

Dewey was the most difficult to pin down. The connections between his philosophy and capitalism are in largely in the subtext. He does say about the social order: “Is it not the reason for our preference that we believe that mutual consultation and convictions reached through persuasion, make possible a better quality of experience than can otherwise be provided on any wide scale?” This quotation is in the context of providing our society’s general preference for democratic systems that are participatory and humane, over forceful and coercive ones as a justification for a progressive perspective on education. In the subtext, I came to the conclusion that Dewey’s theory of individualized education for the personal fulfillment of each child exists in contrast to the “traditional education” that he opposes. That system was designed largely for the benefit of providing the proletariat with an obedient workforce. I came to infer that although Dewey seemed to not oppose the democratic capitalism of his day, that he would not approve of the vast inequities of late-stage capitalism that deprives so many of a relevant education that empowers them to pursue their own interests personally and professionally.

This allowed me to create a new representation of these writers’ perspectives.

ethics-continuu-capitalism

As these theorists debate the role of design in society, I can’t help but feel a more self-aware acknowledgment of the debate actually being about the role of design in a capitalist society is important. As we move into an era of increasing inequality and consolidation of wealth and power into fewer hands, how can we update our ideas about design? Will voices like Bernays dominate–those who mistrust the populace to arrive at reasonable conclusions in a marketplace of ideas, but still somehow trusts the public to “learn to overthrow tyranny of every sort” as a result of being exposed to ever more sophisticated manipulations by people in power? Or will we answer a more progressive call like Papanek’s–to integrate “insights of the social sciences, biology, anthropology, politics, engineering, and technology, the behavioural sciences, and much else, [into] the design process…responsive to the true needs of men” that doesn’t “defile the earth”? Surely the latter will require a rethinking of the benefits and constraints of capitalism as we are currently practicing it.

an adherence to humanity scale

Many disciplines analyze and reflect on notable authors. For our theory presentation class this week, design proves to be no different…or does it?

Some organic, great ideas and systems have been sown into our planet by humans before us. Good-for-growth, non-gmo, betterment of humankind, type ideas have put some humans in a very nice, comfortable place.

In the shadow of those nice comfortable places are some dark not so nice places. Post-mortem consequences. Maybe the idea got too big too fast, perhaps it worked in one place on earth and not the other. No matter what facet of design you’re in; change is constant.

Edward Bernays or the granddaddy of propaganda falls furthest to the left as he highlights the use of public manipulation to influence idea. That’s scary. The miseducation of a group of humans intentionally runs far too many parallels to a certain modern-day scenario we have here in the United States right now…

 

Vitta falls just to the right of Bernays on my axis…. He’s aware that design is critical, there was a time for true innovation, whereas at the time of his writing I took away that he felt objects were a lackluster extension of self. There’s not much reflection on the process or materials, rather I heard a stress on the importance of practice, no real solutions.

Mass consumption had already well engrained itself throughout design at this point and is further reinforced in later readings from Neil Postman and Victor Papanek. This idea of making without ethics or thorough examination is of poor use. Edward Bernays writing felt the most dense however contained some of the most empathetic things I’ve read amongst the five. I found these three authors to be the most socially apt. Their ability to identify past and present, and the importance that each human carries is vital.

IDSE102- D.OHalloran Theorist Polygon Project.001