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Outcomes from last week’s social network modelling were another pointed lesson in public facing design research. As part of a CX PhD project I’ve been working with The Guardian Digital Agency and a social enterprise, Changify, in Elephant and Castle in South London. We’ve taken over a unit in The Clarence Centre, South Bank University’s business incubator and start-up hub. The space is free to access, and opens onto the street. I undertook two days of research asking people to map their social networks in physical form using a cork tile, push pins and rubber bands. The design of the activity built on what I learned in Liverpool doing browser history comics i.e. that over structured activities do not work well in unstructured environments. The activity was designed to allow for diverse responses to emerge, for people to respond in whatever time they had available, and for spontaneous conversations about the results to occur. Recruiting passersby to research activity on London Road had its own challenges, including participants unable to read or write, and visitors from the nearby methadone clinic. Flexibility is needed, the researcher needs to be able to respond to unfolding conditions and adjust parameters of the activity appropriately.

Reflecting on the activity and how people responded to the task made me realise the key element of the exercise involves externalisation. Externalisation is understood in constructionism and in a whole range of theories including Activity Theory to be the process of making internal thoughts, structures, or processes apparent and visible. This happens when there is a breakdown, problem, or if a repair is necessary. i.e. when your car breaks down it is necessary to open up the bonnet and get the tools out. Internal understandings of how the engine works are transformed into external actions. This connects with Latour’s idea of how moments of crisis reveal the extent of networks. When I asked the participants to model their social networks in physical form, a moment of crisis ensues in which the network is externalised. The other case for externalisation is when collaboration is necessary, requiring people to make their views, actions, and abilities apparent in order to facilitate co-ordination within the group. Social anthropologist Nigel Rapport describes context as an act of personal externalisation. He refers to Bateson‘s conception of multiple contexts forming an interlocking set of social relations. The way people see the world around them is externalised in their respective personal contexts. Perhaps all of art and design can be thought of as externalisation in one form or another.

I have 30+ social network tiles as the research data to analyse, contextualise and bring into a design. The next important question is then; how to analyse the objects? Each tile consists of pins, coloured rubber bands, text, and a polaroid portrait. Alongside each contribution is also a recorded interview. So, text, image, a physical substrate, pins, rubber bands, video, and sound. That could well be a description of a multi-modal research object. Multi-modal analysis appears to offer the best way of making sense of such a richly interwoven artefact. Multimodality implies meaning is made by people using semiotic resources that take shape over time in a particular social context. Interactions between modes i.e. between image and text, or gesture and music are how people use language and representation to communicate. Modal affordance is a key concept of multimodality and means ‘the material and the cultural aspects of modes: what it is possible to express and represent easily with a mode’ (Bezemer, 2012). The inter-semiotic relationship between video, pins, tile, sound, and image and how they are synthesised to create meaning is the focus of analysis. One challenge for the analysis of my research is that I have developed a novel creative research artefact of my own, one that has no history of socially evolving use, and one that transforms everyday objects into semiotic resources.. Multimodal analysis can perhaps deal with this lack of existing material context by focusing on how the various elements (semiotic resources) come together to signify a social network.

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