Making design research useful

I found Dan Saffer’s presentation on “How to lie with design research” on Nicolas Nova’s blog today. A User Experience researcher, Nova posts a lot of blog posts of varying insights on interaction design and user experience and such buzzwords.

The talk is a tongue-in cheek discussion of ethnographic design research, which appears to annoy a fair part of the designers. As Saffer puts it, “don’t bother going out into the field, it’s too hard.” In particular, it is about avoiding being “uncomfortable or embarrassed or feel stupid” – experiences that are integral to an anthropologist’s fieldwork, but which designers feel little need to expose themselves to.

In this way, Saffer touches upon this annoyance in a very dead-pan fashion by massaging the imagination of the audience: What would be the alternative? How you can avoid doing research and simply present other people’s photos and anecdotes as your own, and still have the credibility of having done proper research? Nova cleverly connects this dilemma with the ??armchair anthropologists? of yore building their analyses on the data of others.

Others, such as Jan Chipchase does do his own research, but worries about how useful and worthwhile it will turn out, when he is constantly on the road doing tour bus ethnography to gather data, never staying in one place for long, and never seeming to have time to digest and fully reflect on what he experiences.

Reflecting on this problem of speed, another design researcher, Anne Galloway, notes:

So when Jan gets concerned that he may be doing “nothing more than tour bus ethnography” and admits that “without sufficient time for reflection what could be meaningful data is just noise” he’s pointing to very real concerns in the practice of anthropology outside academia.

If armchair anthropology was a product of colonialism, then design ethnography is a product of capitalism. Both suffer similar political and ethical issues, but it seems to me that “tour bus ethnography” additionally suffers a crisis of time that was lacking in the era of armchair anthro.

In a cultural era often characterised in terms of speed, Jan asks:

Given the constraints – what is an optimal and what is a sufficient amount of time to spend in the field? And if your project involves cultural comparisons – how much time is enough to rest, reflect and analyse between field trips?

[…] Where is the questioning of the constraints that bring about these crises in time? Where is the challenge to the cultures of speed?

With cultures of speed, she refers to the work of French philosopher Paul Virilio, who argues that the 20th century has seen a constant acceleration of Western culture, through cheap flight, digital communication and neo-liberal capitalism. And increase in speed which only becomes apparent with the spectacular crashes – whether financial, political or environmental.

Without delving into whether or not this acceleration is a good thing or not (I’ve already presented various points of view regarding that in my essay on the Western Perception of Time), I find it worth discussing according to what criteria design ethnography can be evaluated. As Anne Galloway has noted, design ethnography cannot productively be evaluated according to the criteria of academic anthropology. But which criteria then, and who decides?

Design anthropologist Anne Kirah tackled some of these issues in her talk at the Index Design conference recently [talk audio, slides]. She focused on how designers and concept consulents when appropriating ethnographic methods often fail to realise the importance of the anthropological mindset behind these methods.

Her central point is that anthropology is more than just a toolkit. It is a mindset – a stance that takes as its point of departure a clear awareness of personal pre-assumptions and thus an open-minded notion that “I’m not the expert.” This includes:

  • A willingness to go out of your comfort zone
  • A willingness to learn with these people
  • A willingness to build with these people
  • Being humble and practicing the art of humility
  • A willingness to be flexible and adapt to any given context
  • A willingness to ??live?? in the question

Naturally, many designers don’t really want to do this, since it is hard work which requires a lot of empathy and humility. Kirah’s point would be that that’s why there ought to be a great need for design anthropologists who can do such research and keep a focus on the needs, interests and motivations of people, rather than simply faking your data or using the anecdotal material of others, as Saffer jokingly suggests.

But under what criteria can such ethnographic design research be made so as to both get beyond the initial preconceived assumptions of the researcher and at the same time be developed within the short time span required by the design studios and consulting companies involved in such research?

The Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup remarks that being in the field is about “accepting the empirical unreality.” That is, to recognize and admit the infinity of cultural translation, and instead focus on the ethnographic transubstantiation of lived experience into text, images, film – life communicated: “The empirical data is felt through experience, but it is created and rendered probable through stories.”

Thus, ethnography is produced in the negotiation of experience after the fact. Hastrup notes, much like Kirah, that it essential to set aside your own preconceived assumptions, to continually exoticize the field and in order to get the most out of this experience, and gain new perspectives on your observations.

In relation to design, the most important part of ethnography is gaining a concrete sense of the situation for which you’re attempting to design. To sum up the situation with all its levels of un-comprehended and fuzzy reality. The design anthropologist’s job is thus to present as much of these fuzzy experiences as possible for the designers to relate to and build their design upon.

When I talked to Anne Kirah after her talk, she noted the importance of the design anthropologists bringing the designers and engineers into the field with them. To give them that real experience of the situation and to support the anthropologist’s ethnographic findings.

Recently, I also discussed this problem with Joachim Halse, another design anthropologist, and he recommended bringing the informants to the engineers and recreate the key design situations within their comfort zones, where they couldn’t transgress the cultural norms of the informants.

Either way, the central goal of design ethnography is finding, understanding, and conveying such central situations in such a way that designers and engineers can build upon them without feeling forced out of their own comfort zone, allowing them to focus on the work they do best. As Donald Schön notes, design is a conversation between designer and situation. The design anthropologist’s job is to introduce the designer to such a situation. Not to leading him and telling him what to do, but to guide him and make him aware of the intricacies of the situation.

So how much time would a design anthropologist need to find, experience and understand such situations well enough to convey and present them for the designers and engineers to build upon?

Well… that still depends on the situation. And the anthropologist. Much like it has always been for anthropology. But at least with these criteria in mind, it does not have to take months or years to come up with interesting or useful research.

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Just found Dori Tunstall’s blog. She’s another design anthropologist. In a recent post, she’s contemplating the nature of design anthropology, and she quotes a comment from Roberta Feldman:

[Design anthropology is] trying to take social meaning and process and tie it to the act of designing, tie it closely to the actual decisions that designers have to make. You provide useful information and methods to inform specific design activities.

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