Synthesizing the value of design research

Through the first few weeks of design theory class, we have read a multitude of papers and excerpts from various authors that I have been trying to connect to my personal life experience. Most recently,  we had a series of readings about the role of design research highlighting various ways to prototype, probe, and conduct research. Mixed into the reading was a stressed importance on synthesis – or the ability to take the information and turn it into knowledge. As this course is focused on design research, and the author of one such article was Jon Kolko the co-founder of AC4D, I thought it would be compelling to synthesize the readings into a valid argument for the value of design research, for my own understanding as much as for the class assignment. It has been muttered on multiple occasions to learn how to explain “the unique value of design research”, so that is what I am attempting to do.

AC4D_IDSE102_value of research_08

The x-axis of this graph was assigned to us as “designing for” and “designing with”, while the y-axis was up to our own interpretation. After scribbling through various versions, I found the most compelling y-axis to be “problem seeking” vs “problem solving”.  The issue of problems was a common theme through all the authors, as problems are inherent to life much less design, but the approach taken be each author was unique.

To better explain the position of each author, I have highlighted a quote from their reading and will use it to justify their location.

Once a product direction has been established, research with customers can enhance and improve it. – Don Norman

Norman is not opposed to design research, but he made it very clear he thinks it is best used to find incremental gains from existing products. His problem space has already been defined, and his thought that technology comes first, and need comes second leads me in the direction that he is not designing with the consumer, but for them.

Context is a central issue for HCI design and for interactive systems more broadly. The goal of the work described here is to find the right scope of the problem. – Paul Dourish

Dourish was an interesting read, and was one of the hardest to locate on the graph. The problem he refers to in the quote relates to the fluid nature of “context”, and that we can not design for a specific context but rather design a system that allows for flexibility. Ultimately, I believe that he is designing for users because he notes that the user, not designers will dictate the way technology is used by how they incorporate it into practice, without mention of consulting with users. He has already defined his problem space as being the inability to design for context.

This paper has presented the Product Ecology, a theoretical framework and an approach for conducting qualitative design research with the goal of understanding the complex context of use around a product. – Jodi Forlizzi

Forlizzi wrote extensively about how to utilize the proper research technique, and laid forth a framework for determining which application to use. Throughout, she spoke of observing products and conducting research to improve upon them, which put her on the problem solving end of the spectrum, while also observing the users more than interacting with them in the research.

There is no simple answer, but the analysis we have done shows that challenging some of the implicit assumptions held in the HCI community is necessary when considering technology…  – Christopher La Dantec

When reading La Dantec is was very clear that he wanted to design with the user. Their research project involved getting behaviors and insights directly from the homeless population he was looking to serve. They also tried to remove assumptions when entering the problem space, which moved him higher up the problem seeking scale. The big hold-back for his research not being higher in the problem seeking graph was that he defined his user base to narrowly, as only the homeless and their case workers, when the research had the possibility to effect other populations with similar behaviors (transient, socially disconnected could also serve our military).

What is the point of deliberately confusing our volunteers and ourselves? Most fundamentally, it is to prevent ourselves from believing that we can look into their heads. – Bill Gaver

Gaver had an interesting research experiment called “probology” which gave very ambiguous directions to the user for capturing information. He argued that the uncertainty of knowing what type of information will be returned required the designer to be subjective, and to not enter the problem space with any pre-conceived notions.

In the fuzzy front end, it is often not known whether the deliverable of the design process will be a product, a service, an interface, or something else. The goal of this exploration is to define the fundamental problems and opportunities and to determine what is to be, or should not be, designed and manufactured. – Liz Sanders

Sanders was a staunch supporter of designing with. She felt that adding perspectives from non-designers and bringing the user into the mix was the best way of co-creation. By spreading a wide net at the beginning of the process, it allowed for various possibilities of what the end result might be.

Rather than dive right in to tackle the brief at face value, we find it helpful to back up and understand the larger context. By zooming out, we can illuminate deeper layers of significance. – Jane Fulton Suri

Jane had a very holistic view of design, spread across two readings. The overarching theme that I took away was that the best results from design research happen when you enter the problem space without any assumptions. By involving the users we get a better understanding of what the problem might be, build empathy, and we can then synthesize to build a better product.

A designer attempting to produce an innovative design will conduct research focusing on the experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture. This research will describe an opportunity — design research acts as problem finding. – Jon Kolko

Jon’s reading hammered home what I believe is the point of our curriculum. By incorporating the user and making the process human-centered over design-centered, we are more likely to find valuable insights into their behavior. Jon also talks about synthesis being the most important role of a designer, that it is the bridge between information and understanding, and that putting people at the center of the research and removing assumptions, we are more likely to make meaningful impacts on society.

Design synthesis is the link between the type of behavioral research described earlier — the potential for the future state — and the creation of something new. It is the most critical part of the creative process of design. Jon Kolko

While testing the graphs, I also noticed a correlation between the axis’. The more human centered “design with” way we approach the research, the more likely we are to make revolutionary innovation as well. The idea of seeking out a problem is more fruitful than assuming a problem and will afford us the best possibility to make an impact.

AC4D_IDSE102_value of research_human v design innovation

I believe that the value of human-centered design research is articulated here by showing the methods of research we use can directly relate to the magnitude of innovation we can create for society.