Approaches and Methods for Social Interventions

In class last evening, we explored work by Bill Gaver, Professor of Design at Goldsmiths, and Liz Sanders, Associate Professor at Ohio State University.

Bill Gaver’s work on cultural probes offers a formalized method for injecting creative prompts into peoples’ lives in order to gather qualitative research data about their dreams and passions. These probes are created as incomplete artifacts; the user completes them, and returns them to the design researcher for analysis. This fosters a sort of displaced-dialogue between designer and “non-designers”. This is juxtaposed with contextual inquiry, a methodology that attempts to capture realistic behavior but without an explicit focus on aspirations; CI is typically aimed at understanding what people do and why they do it.

We examined the work – written in 1999, and then revisited in 2004 – in a context of emergent information technology and human-computer interaction. In the early 2000s, typical innovation processes focused on the low-hanging fruit of motivated design requirements: “I conducted research with users, saw a problem, and fixed it.” In this context, there is a one-to-one relationship between the problem and solution, and the designer’s research objective is to find those problems.

But various trends have pushed design higher in the value-chain, and the body of literature related to design-led innovation is now richer and more thoughtful. Consequently, a design-research approach focused on non-motivated design requirements is now increasingly leveraged by innovation consultancies. In this model, designers seek empathetic provocation, and the ability to leverage the provocation rests on the shoulders of the designer during design synthesis: they need to make sense of the data they’ve gathered and frame it in a way that identifies a set of human insights. The problem-solution match is fuzzy, interpretative, and subjective.

Gaver’s model of probes forces this interpretation by celebrating the subjectivity of user creations, and urging designers to avoid arriving at “comfortable conclusions”; designers need to celebrate each individual extremity rather than allow a blanded regression to the mean.

Liz Sanders, writing with George Simons, describes how co-design can be leveraged by introducing “collective creativity as it is applied across the whole span of a design process.” In this model, a designer brings the people that are impacted by a design into the process not as stakeholders (people who may show up for one or two meetings), but as core team members.

As Sanders describes, “The earlier in the design development process that co-creation occurs, the greater and broader the likely impact.” This means that bringing users into the research and synthesis process will result in the meaningful creation of value, and she describes that value in terms of monetary, experiential, and social reward.

Our class conversation explored how a more democratic design process may be threatening to some designers (“I honed my craft for years, and now everyone’s a designer?”) However, the reality of tacit process knowledge means that the designer will always have an authoritative role in the process. But this authority is somewhat balanced by the tacit knowledge of the end-user, who is an expert in whatever subject matter the design team is engaged with. In many ways, this relationship results in a transdisciplinary approach, bringing an expert in subject matter with an expert in design. But it demands the designer’s role shifts from one of visionary to one of facilitator, and that implies a new set of skills for design – skills like conversation, listening, teaching, and leadership.

The fundamentals of contextual inquiry provide a means for pursuing empathy, by placing designers in context where they can form a master-apprentice relationship with the people they are serving. The process of cultural probes introduces provocation, forcing a designer to tell stories of what they saw and why they saw it. The philosophy of co-design brings end-users continually into the creation process in order to leverage tacit domain knowledge, to further reinforce an empathetic approach, and to offer additional domain provocation.