Designers are not researchers: the difference between design and social research

Designers are not researchers: the difference between design and social research from Sam Ladner is worth a read by all designers engaging in this kind of work. I suspect we’re all guilty of it. My excuse would be that sometimes its necessary and useful for designers to do the research, but I’m not sure I would be arguing the point the other way around, that social scientists should do a bit of design.

Does Your Research Exist?

Does Your Research Exist? Another great list of tips from John Thackara about how to get your research out there in a useful way. These three are particularly good:

Tip 3 When presentiong to me, assume I know nothing. NOTHING! The first two minutes – of my visit, or of your presentation – should answer the following questions that are rattling around in my addled mind:
“Where am I, and why am I here?”
“Who are these people?”
“To what question is this story an answer?”

Tip 4 Always answer that last question! State, explicitly, the insight, discovery, or invention you have made, that you are giving me to take away.

Tip 13 Treat PR consultants politely but also with caution.They often never get it,whatever it is – but will act as if they do. If your company insists you use a PR team, use them as support – but never give them complete control over your communications.

Design research: sorting your shoe walking from your talk talking «

Design research: sorting your shoe walking from your talk talking « is a good piece on being realistic about design research and choosing the appropriate method from @skewiff (Mel Edwards). I liked this update of the old cliché:

Do I think this is the most overused collection of words in relation to research:

“To really understand people you have to walk a mile in their shoes. That means you have to take yours off first.”

Yes. In reality, when you go out and speak to people you need to think of them as Imelda Marcus – for they wear many shoes. And you need to find and walk in the right ones. But you need to wear your ones when you design. Your shoes matter too.

Most important, she asks the right questions in the first place including: “Why are we researching: to drive, inspire, inform?”

Rigor and relevance in interaction design research

Rigor and relevance in interaction design research is a good find by @nicolasnova from the Near Future Laboratory. As Nicolas describes:

It addresses the problem of ‘disciplinary anxiety’ that is often felt by people in this field and the inherent discussion about what constitutes ‘good research’ in terms of rigor and relevance.

The paper by Daniel Fallman and Erik Stolterman makes the argument “that the only way to discuss and examine rigor and relevance for interaction design research is to do it in relation to the three forms of research and to their particular purposes.”

I had similar problems when writing my PhD on interactivity and play. I had to put in several caveats at the beginning to be sure that it would be read in the right context. Discipline anxiety indeed.

Design Research: What Is It and Why Do It?

Design Research: What Is It and Why Do It? is a good piece from Panthea Lee arguing the case for design research in the public and international development sectors. As she says, “understanding and meeting human needs are critical for improved livelihoods and better governance.”

The work Reboot is doing looks fascinating and, I think, an area that service design’s approach and methods can really contribute too.

Coming from the other direction, The Policy Lab are also engaging in similar processes for peace, security and development.

Design Research – A Failure of Imagination?

Have design education and design research failed to fire up the imagination in public discourse? I believe so and I believe the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mantra has unbalanced thinking about education curricula in general. John Thackara’s recent Observers Room newsletter notes the same:

Last month, as the Dutch government expelled trouble-making artists from the state funding system, UK and US policymakers demanded a stronger focus by education on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — the STEM subjects. They claim a STEM workforce “determines a nation’s ability to sustain itself.”

No it does not. A too-sharp focus on STEM creates an innovation policy that is not fit for purpose. We need to diversify, not reduce, our ways of knowing and acting in the world. We need to emphasize the social dimension of innovation, not just technology. And we need to master systems thinking more than silo thinking. Experimental art and design can help us do all of the above — not as an alternative to science, but as its enrichment.

True innovators decline to remain locked in the STEM cell.

Last month I spoke at the Cumulus/Design Research Society Researching Design Education Symposium in Paris and argued a similar case. For a profession that claims imagination and divergent thinking to be among its key attributes, design research has failed to ignite public imagination. Despite efforts by the likes of John Maeda, the rhetoric of STEM dominates the media. Science writers expound in newspaper columns, entire TV channels are devoted to the wonders of science. Science is, of course, important, but this one-sided view of research has not been counter-balanced by an equivalent, passionate exploration of the boundaries of design in the public sphere. Yet the potential is there – arguably, a handful of TED Talks have done more to raise the awareness of the importance of design than several decades of design research publication. Although there are exceptions, design research has failed to imagine and communicate an integrated vision of design comparable to that of science.

The paper I wrote for the presentation argues that design has failed to integrate the nexus of theory, research and practice and is a call to arms for design researchers to bring their activities into a broader, public discourse. Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, design education research has become too convergent in its thinking and discipline specific. As practices such as service design engage in projects at the public policy level, it is essential for design to explicitly articulate the process of design synthesis in order to gain and maintain credibility, for such projects offers an opportunity to bring design’s value and activities on par with the sciences in public discourse.

You can download the full paper, Design Research – A Failure of Imagination? and the presentation slides (8.5MB PDF – lots of images). The full proceedings of the symposium are available on the conference website.

I would be very interested to hear any feedback or opinions from others on this subject.

Understanding Interactivity Through Play


Some months ago I officially became Dr. Polaine (Andy Polaine, PhD. for you Americans) and have been planning to write a series of posts about the main themes of my thesis, Developing A Language Of Interactivity Through The Theory Of Play, for some time.

So to coincide with a post over at Core77 about the journey of doing a design PhD, this is the first installment to introduce the main themes and to provide a link to download the entire thesis (5.9MB).

The background to doing the PhD was largely everything I had learned since the early Antirom days when we were trying to discover and uncover the essence of interactive media and really trying to understand what makes it different from other media. At the same time I was getting more and more interested in storytelling and was fascinated by fact that great stories, regardless of their content and style, tended to adhere to clearly defined structures that had been honed over thousands of years.

These converging interests gave rise to some apparently simple questions: What makes one interactive experience more engaging than another? What makes an interactive experience engaging? Why are some simple interactions so satisfying and others so dull? Why do technological marvels sometimes fail to satisfy whilst a cardboard box can provide hours of entertainment?

They sound trivial, but turned out to be very difficult to answer in a rigorous way. The easy answer is, like love and pornography, “I know it when I see it,” but that doesn’t really help anyone develop a strategy to analyse or create new interactive works. New Media (to use an uncomfortable term) has had its fair share of academic attention, but most of it I have found pretty tedious and often distanced from my own experience of creating and using interactive media. So at the one end we have the media and cultural theorists and at the other we have the HCI folk. In the middle somewhere are the media art aficionados.

At Antirom we were playing with the affordances of the tools, playing with our understanding of narrative structure, playing games and, most importantly, playing at making interactive ‘things’. We were not terribly sure what one should call these ‘things’ that we were making. Sometimes it was tempting to refer to the medium itself, such as CD-ROMs, but this only described the storage format, not the interactive experiences. Partly because many of these interactive experiments were incomplete and partly because we felt they were experiments in play in both their creation and usage, we settled on calling them ‘toys’ for the most part. Sometimes we would take the code guts of one ‘toy’ and re-use or re-combine it with another and these guts we would call an ‘engine’.

Thus, within the same breath, we would use both non-industrial and industrial terminology for the same ‘thing’. It soon became clear to us that the “interactives” (as we now describe them) we were making a marked departure from the media forms that had gone before and that a language to describe them, think about them and create them also had to be invented. The media theory we had imbibed as students, that helped us deconstruct the complex layers of semiotics in traditional media, was rendered weak and impotent.

I couldn’t use HCI or common user-experience frameworks to examine an interactive artwork and at the same time I couldn’t view a commercial website or application design with a media arts lens. Yet I felt I could understand an interactive artwork with the same sensibility as a might analyse a piece of iPhone UI design, but there wasn’t a framework for me to articulate that understanding.

This is what became the subject of my PhD, which explores a still-developing discipline and thus borrows from a wide range of existing, established and not-so-established disciplines. Art and media historians and theorists may feel it does not draw upon enough cultural theory, nor does it draw on the often opaque language of those disciplines. HCI proponents will want more empirical and technical data. Behavioural psychologists may also have wished for more direct experimental data and linguists a deeper examination of the semiotics, semantics and syntax of interactivity.

The key to the whole exploration is play. Understanding how play and playfulness work, what constitutes play (still undefinable) and how much everyone like to engage in play when given the chance, is central to the thesis. But along the way it was necessary to draw upon a wide range of disciplines – from design, art, cognitive science, linguistics and more.

I argue that play is such a fundamental building block of culture, society, technology and cognition that it is the ideal lens through which to examine the interactive experience. It is versatile enough to cross boundaries and fundamental enough to be understood intuitively. Through an understanding of the intersection between movement, embodied cognition, metaphor and play, a set of principles of interactivity are developed that are flexible enough to analyse and be applied to a broad spectrum of interactive experiences, from interactive artworks to services to individual user interface elements.

The four main principles are a deconstruction of the interactive experience, which might last a second or several days. You can squash or stretch the timescale, but I have found the principles to hold true regardless of the context. I’ll post more detail on each one in coming weeks, but here they are for now:

  1. The Invitation to Play
  2. The Playing Field & the Rules
  3. Challenge, Boredom and Anxiety
  4. Triviality, Open-endedness, Promises

Writing a thesis like this is like painting a large bridge – once you get to the end, you have to start all over again. Naturally, in the six years it took me to write the thesis (part-time!), technology and culture moved on rapidly. The iPod was in its second generation when I started and the iPad was just about to be released when I finished. The latter was important because it confirmed my thoughts on “the disappearing interface” and the need for a deep understanding of metaphor when examining interactivity.

Social networks also exploded onto the scene as I was writing my PhD. The final section of the thesis is somewhat of a postscript and proposes that these principles provide a way to examine the phenomenal growth of social networks and the fundamental cultural shifts we are experiencing today as a result of the friction generated between emerging networked technologies and the industrial age structures they are dismantling.

In future posts I’ll go into more detail on the various sections, but in the meantime I’d welcome your feedback via the comments or Twitter.

Hello Dave. I’d like to interview you.


Hi folks – can you help me find some interviewees?

I’m working on some initial research into Ambient Assisted Living with the iHome Lab here in Luzern. The project is about bringing a human-centred design approach to an area that, despite it’s name, is heavily driven by technological development rather than people’s actual needs. (The project is called Human Centred Design for Ambient Assisted Living or HAAL, hence the image above).

To get some initial insights, I want to do some qualitative research interviews with people aged between 55 – 75 (plus or minus a couple of years) to ask them about their current technology usage in the home as well as some thoughts about their plans for their older years.

While the majority of people I want to interview will be fairly average users of home technology, I am also after a few people at the extreme ends. So, people who hate in-home technology and battle with it or people who are totally kitted out with home automation. In those extreme cases, the age range is less relevant because they’ll all be old one day like the rest of us.

If possible, the interviews would be in their homes so they can show me the things they love and hate, but there is some flexibility there (I’m interested in people’s workspaces too).

Some people near me in Germany or in Luzern, Zurich, Bern or Basel in Switzerland would be ideal. Friends, relatives or friends of friends work well because they tend to open up more if there is a link to someone they know.

If anyone has any suggestions for interviewees, please get in touch.

(Image stolen from, in turn stolen from ??)

Is Design Research Useless for Innovation?

Don Norman has just posted a very provocative and thoughtful piece about the value of design research, or not.

“I’ve come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.”

You should read the full article, but he goes on to essentially argue that innovation is driven by technology not needs. This leads him to this: “Myth: Use ethnographic observational studies to discover hidden, unmet needs” and continues:

“But the real question is how much all this helps products? Very little. In fact, let me try to be even more provocative: although the deep and rich study of people’s lives is useful for incremental innovation, history shows that this is not how the brilliant, earth-shattering, revolutionary innovations come about.

“Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding of all this research stuff: they invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so. Most of these inventions fail, but the ones that succeed change our lives.

He then lists several examples, such as the airplane, the automobile, SMS messaging, etc. that arose from technology, not research. Obviously this touches a nerve for me, because it’s a large part of what I do and teach. I think it’s an important conversation to have, especially in academia, which can often be terribly navel-gazing and/or over-zealous about the importance of a certain avenue of research because it’s what is required to get grant funding. But I think Norman is both right and wrong and also viewing needs and technology from an engineering perspective (which has always been my criticism of him, despite his human centred design views). Here’s the clincher:

“Edison launched his first phonograph company within months of his invention: he never questioned the need. He had invented the paperless office, he announced, and launched his product.”

The thing is, Edison did question the need, he just got it wrong. He thought the need for his invention was the paperless office. It turned out it was to record and sell music. To me, this example just goes to show how important it is to have an insight into people’s lives and examine not what they say they want or need, but what they actually need by watching what they do.

It’s also particularly pertinent in service design because it isn’t necessarily product or technology led. Of course Twitter is a service and one that is both potent and that people never knew they had a need for, but Twitter’s technology isn’t complex. Twitter didn’t arise from an innovative idea to build a chat space, Twitter arose from the idea of modifying an existing paradigm for a certain need.

In some ways I’m arguing my way back into Norman’s final point, which is that real usefulness comes from slow, incremental changes – ‘innovation’ that, in his words, is “least interesting innovations to the university and company research community”. He sums this up as, “technology first, invention second, needs last”. Whilst I agree that iterative processes often create innovation, and I also think that the way society uses a technology for things completely left-field to what it was originally designed for (e.g. SMS) is where some great innovation happens, I still don’t see this as technology coming first. Technology is just a medium through which culture expresses itself and with which people communicate, ultimately.

Technology without any application is either an innovation waiting to happen or something useless sitting in the corner like an old Betamax video recorder. If the need isn’t there, no level of technology helps anyone. I would add that this is a particularly American approach to the role and value of technology in a determinist fashion. It also reminds me of Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook’s essay, The Californian Ideology.

Steve Portigal and Frog Design’s Adam Richardson have also written thoughtful responses to Norman’s piece, which is how I came across it. Todd Zaki Warfel has also written a rebuttal. [UPDATE: Good post from Nicolas on this over at Pasta & Vinegar. The comments are valuable too.]