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Saturday, February 21, 2004

Liz Sanders
Liz Sanders, president of design research firm sonicRim, was our guest in Studio last Wednesday, discussing participatory research.

Research has become involved in all phases of product development over the last 20 years, but particular attention is being paid to generative research; that is, research being done before the ideation phase. Which is to say, at the very beginning of the design process.

Over the last 20 years as well, there has been a change in what we call those who use the products, from customer to consumer to user to participants to adapters, and now, to co-creators. A more participatory culture is emerging, and "ordinary" people are starting to become more creative and express the need to be creative. SonicRim's philosophy is that everyone is creative, and that anyone involved in using and producing products should be involved in creating those products. Their principles are as follows:

  • All people are creative.
  • Everyone has dreams. Everyone can imagine their life in the future, even if that life is difficult to express.
  • People will fill in what is unseen and unsaid based on their past experiences and imagination.
  • People project their needs onto ambiguous stimuli because they are driven to make meaning.

The process sonicRim uses to harness this everyday creativity is:

  1. Immerse subjects into the experience for a week or two to warm them up to the subject and its context.
  2. Use an activity like collaging to activate feelings and memories about past experiences.
  3. Use more abstract methods to imagine a future scenario, to dream about the future.
  4. Use activities like velcro modeling for bisociation and expression of new ideas.

Ambiguity and play allow adults to express things they otherwise wouldn't. That's where making comes in. In research, you need to look at three things: what people say, what people do, and what people make. What people do is good for understanding the present, what is happening now. What people make (with, say, collages or velcro models or drawings) is good for expressing feelings and memories from the past as well as dreams and fears about the future. (What people say falls somewhere between what people do and make.)

You take with you a toolkit of visual and verbal components composed of clip art, words, magazine images, cutouts, shapes, etc. etc. You don't have to explain much when you give people the toolkit--they already know how to express themselves in their own way with the tools. And, importantly, that is what you are looking for: expression of needs, latent or otherwise. The subjects aren't creating designs.

All this stuff encourages people to explore their experiences. Experience is where memory and imagination meet, not just how you feel right now. Innovation requires a full understanding of experience.

This sort of research begs some questions (with Liz's responses):

  • Are designers losing control of the design process? Yes, but we are opening it up to others. We're entering new design spaces where designers let go of their own control to amplify the creativity of others.
  • How much do we want everyday people to drive design? To the extent of their expertise, abilities, and interest.
  • How will the tools and methods for research and design change? They will continue to blur. Research is becoming more creative and design becoming more relevant.
  • If everyone is creative, what is the role of the designer? To amplify the creativity of others. Designers will create scaffolds upon which everyday people will express their creativity. Designers will create more of what Ivan Illich's calls convivial tools: tools that allow users to invest the world with their meaning, to enrich the environment with the fruits of their vision, and to use them for the accomplishment of a purpose they have chosen.

Stop reading if you don't want my personal and biased opinion.

I seldom comment on the entries on this blog and instead try to simply and accurately record the information I've learned. In this case, however, I have to note that I am extremely unsure of the ideas Liz presented, especially the conclusions drawn about the future role of the designer. Certainly, as John Rheinfrank discussed in Seminar last week, people will use the products we create in ways we never intended and we have to design for that. But I'm not quite ready to say that the purpose of design is to simply support other people's creativity. I think there's a deeper meaning to design itself, to the task of designing, than that.

I also think that creativity does not equal design and being creative doesn't mean you have design insights. I'd say creativity is only a portion of the toolkit of a designer, and just because everyone is creative doesn't mean everyone is a designer. It's probably a fairly small percentage of people who have either the innate talent or else the training to be a designer.

Additionally, letting people participate in design to the extent of their abilities is a pretty slippery slope, since most people have no idea of the extent of their abilities. I'm sure that group of folks who designed the infamous (in design circles anyway) Swiss building with so many windows it couldn't be cooled thought they were working within their abilities too.

I don't want this commentary to seem as though I don't think users (co-creators is a bit much for me to swallow right now) shouldn't be involved in the creation of products: I firmly believe they should. But there is a limit: things that are designed by a committee look like it. Designers invest some of themselves and their own personal humanity into the products they create. I'd hate to lose that illuminating individual spark.

posted at 01:39 AM in special guest stars, techniques | comments (0) | trackback (1)


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