02 December 2008

Liz Sanders' design research map

Liz Sanders has devised an interesting diagram mapping different approaches to design research on the axes of 'design- v. research-led' and 'expert- v. participatory-mindset' (see Interactions, Nov/Dec 2008.) I think it would be fair to say her goal is to promote design-led and participatory approaches, which she believes will serve better in addressing future, 'fuzzy questions' than classical, research-led methods. By 'fuzzy' she means questions such as 'how to provide for an ageing population' or 'how to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.' She writes more about this in her joint paper with Pieter Jan Stappers, submitted to CoDesign. I see her point. Participatory research is often mentioned only as an afterthought in discussion of research techniques and most of the literature of user research stems from a research-led perspective.

Of course we can never really do the comparison to know whether one research approach works better than another (we could try but there are many ways in which such a comparison might be flawed). But I think most practitioners would agree that open-ended research methods in the early stages of a design project are likely to generate a wide range of ideas to consider for further development; and that close involvement with potential users gives designers the best chance of honing new products and services to meet people's needs. (I'm with many in not particularly liking the word 'users' but sometimes it's the only one that works.)

Since my background is originally in the research-led, expert-mindset quadrant of the research map I can't help feeling slightly piqued at Sanders' and Stappers' caricature of it as over-constrained and hierarchical. I think most experienced practitioners use a range of techniques to get the truest representation they can of people's needs and behaviours, want to work alongside designers and bring decision-makers into research, and aim to ensure that research outcomes are communicated into organisations in a rich way that doesn't stifle development. That's not forgetting the need to work within time constraints and meet reasonable budgets which require some pragmatism.

Carving up 'the research space' (as many people do in promoting their own techniques) fails to recongnise what unites the different approaches within it: the drive to open up the real-world context of people who will use new products and services. It's this contextual understanding that provides so much more insight than that of the designer, technologist or planner working in isolation; or the too little, too late formality of traditional (usually focus group) market research.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:58 am

    Hi Alison,
    My goal with the map is actually not "to promote design-led and participatory approaches". My goal is to present a way for people to see where they are on a map of all possible (applied) design research approaches so that they can better see where else they can go. I mainly use the map as a teaching tool.
    Thanks, Liz Sanders