Design research is usually understood to be about developing some kind of new artefact. These artefacts can be objects like bracelets, tables or cars. They can be interfaces and platforms like Twitter or Angry Birds or they can be services like Uber, or the benefits system. This is by no means an exhaustive classification and is in part intended to show how futile trying to pin down what design produces can be. I would argue, for example, that all the above involve elements of product, platform and service. So perhaps design is best described as an emphasis or interest. Where do you choose to focus attention in the spectrum of design activity? and how do you position your design outputs? I do believe designers have to produce things, increasingly with intangible value, that perform some function, abstract or otherwise, in society.

There are a whole range of techniques and activities that designers doing research engage in to get at these outputs – these are commonly referred to in research as methods. Most, but not all, design research involves working with people. Methods in design research therefore usually feature some form of collaboration or participation i.e. it is not usual that the design researcher would work alone in a studio seeking no contact with the people who might use their intended design outputs. The aims of working with people can be multiple. Sanders and Stappers are two of the main thinkers in this area and have recently produced an updated classification system. They identify four facets of designerly research activity and attempt a mapping between them. Approach (methods), focus in time (present, futures), mindset (for, as opposed to with, people), and intent (provoking, engaging, serving).

The methods they identify consist of probes, toolkits and prototypes. Probes are positioned as design-led, expert driven ways of eliciting general feelings and experiences from people. Designers then use the responses to their probes to develop new artefacts. Probes are not designed in collaboration with people, they are sent to them for response. This is designing for people, it can stretch across present, future and far future scenarios. The work I’m doing is definitely at the exploratory or ‘fuzzy front end’ of design (i.e. I’m not evaluating high resolution design prototypes) and it is all about understanding experiences in the present, but it’s definitely not designing for people in the sense of making a new and better potato peeler, or rural bus service.

According to Sanders and Stappers, toolkits are generative – they give rise to new forms. They ‘describe a participatory design language that can be used by non-designers’ – so far so good, that is what I’m doing – and they are for understanding experience and involve ‘participants using these toolkits to make expressive artefacts and discussing those’ – that’s also what I’m doing. Generative toolkits ‘are used in facilitated collaborative activities and their results (artefacts and description or enactments of their use) can be analysed to find underlying patterns’ – this definition puts me firmly in the generative toolkit camp. Where it begins to blur is the mapping to focus in time. I’m not sure this category makes that much sense in the Sanders and Stappers paper since the edges between designing and engaging ideas that exist in the present, near and far futures involve so much crossover they render the distinction moot. A more interesting point for me is how long after the workshop is over does generative extend? Should design decisions have been made 1 week, 1 month or 1 year after the toolkit has been completed?

The third method Sanders and Stappers write about is prototypes. Prototypes are well understood in design research and there are plenty of published articles on how they work in design (see Houde and Hill, 1997 and my post of October 28, 2013). The only point I would make here is that there is a use for prototypes in participative design that goes beyond evaluation. Prototypes are widely held to be useful steps on the journey towards a final design, and for communicating design ideas to stakeholders and non-designers. If a prototype is created in collaboration with participants then they are cast in the role of designers and are completing design prototyping tasks for themselves, not simply assessing those made by experts.

The distinction between designing for and designing with is a more subtle one than the terms imply. Different aspects may come into play at different points in the design cycle. I like the use of the word ‘mindset’ to describe how designers approach this, since it is more a question of emphasis and intention – perhaps also an ethical position – than an explicit intention. In my case, design activity extends to the creation of a flexible research artefact, (not so clearly defined as a toolkit), that must be completed by participants. In fact the entire reason for the design is that it is completed by participants, there is no generative function beyond what engagement with the designed artefact reveals to people. My toolkits are mediative rather than generative  – their purpose is to mediate experience, lead to understanding, reflection, and the externalisation of inner consciousness. Not to generate new forms and novel designs.

There is a definite goal-directness to most of the definitions of design processes that involve people and in fact to most definitions of design research. The assumption is that the purpose of design is to invent new things (see categories above) and design activity (including collaborative activity) is directed towards this end. I find this a but reductive and suspect it pertains for two reasons. 1. The influence of the so-called ‘design scientific’ approach. This is the idea from Herbert Simon that design is ‘the process of transforming existing situations into preferred ones’. In fact I quite like this definition since it leaves room for my research, which uses design to transform the current state of hidden, opaque, and undisclosed digital experiences into preferred realised, tangible, mediating artefacts. My problem is with how the design scientific is usually deployed. That is, to provide a theoretical lens through which to view the creation of new things in society. 2. The fractured state of design research and its constantly evolving set of practices and methods needs some grounding principle that allows people to say ‘yes that is design research, and no that isn’t’. The design scientific view provides this.

In contrast, my research deploys design in the service of uncovering hidden phenomena. I’m using the term design integrated to describe this approach. I will be designing and making what Christine Bold calls representative constructions. These involve novel designs and invented artefacts that embody and illustrate the what I have found out about the externalisation of digital experiences.


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