Doing ‘Design Research’ – the power of Action Research in Design

‘Design Problems’ are notoriously difficult to pin down and define. In fact, the initial intractable-seeming nature of design problems – often referred to by Rittel’s term of ‘Wicked Problems’ – can almost be seen as defining features of both design and design research. Action Research is a research methodology, well-established in the social sciences, which has much to offer design research.

Action Research is a family of research methodologies characterized by their:

-       Focus on experimental methods;

-       Participatory nature;

-       Focus on practice and processes of learning; and

-       Ongoing dialog between the research participants.

Like all design research Action Research is a context-dependent activity – but unlike in many other forms of design research in an Action Research environment the context itself continues to change and be modified during the course of the research process itself. This in fact is where it’s power lies as a design research methodology.

As data emerges from the research process it feeds back into the research process itself opening up new possibilities for the use of different tools, techniques, and methodologies to examine the ‘design problem’ in question. As the research process ‘unfolds’ other types of design research methodologies, such as prototyping and experimentation can be brought in as required, to deepen and build out the design process. This is made clear in the following diagram: 

Figure 1: Action Research in Design (taken from Villari 2015)

As this diagram makes clear, Action Research in a design context is generally structured around four general stages:

  • Analysing;  
  • Interpreting;  
  • Designing; and
  • Experimenting.

The participatory nature of this approach is particularly strong with the participants best seen as being a community of inquiry. What this approach is particularly good at is opening up the democratic nature of this mode of inquiry and the necessarily self-reflective and relational aspect of effective design research. While the terms ‘empathy’ and ‘human-centered’ are increasingly utilized when discussing design their role in Design Research – their active role in how this is taught and practiced by many

A key aspect to successful Action Research in a design context then is the ability of the researcher to provide enough structure to empower and guide the participants without constraining their ability to imagine and play. While this is always a good practice for any form of design research facilitation this is even more so the case in Action Research where the evolving nature of the process and the ‘Design Problem’ itself is dependent on the role of the researcher providing ongoing guidance during the research process. Done well this process can open up new ways of seeing – with the possibility of shifting the very frame of reference in which the design problem is contextualized. Done badly, the process can severely delimit the scope of the possible design outcomes that can emerge.

The key to the successful use of Action Research in design is for design researchers to:

-       Focus on building out the relationships between the participants of the research process (both people and artifacts); and

-       Help manifest in a concrete way the different ideas that emerge from the ongoing design process – including more intangible concepts and ideas that may emerge. 

Combined these processes help ensure that the true strength of Action Research is able to be brought to the very specific contexts that design research is concerned with.

While particularly useful for social design, Action Research has a definite place in all types of design from Industrial Design, Interaction Design, and even Architecture. It’s evolving and participatory nature has much in common with other new design methodologies such as Experiential Futures. These, and other emerging design research techniques and methodologies, offer much to the ongoing development of our profession as designers and the effectiveness and quality of what we design.

Additional images courtesy of: Pixabay

Experiential Futures – a new methodology to help catalyse insight and innovation

There has been an explosion in recent years in the interaction between the design and foresight communities. While both necessarily possess a future focus, as disciplines, they have traditionally had very little engagement with one another.

This is changing. Concrete examples of this engagement include the Association of Professional Futurists 2009 meeting on “Futures by Design” and the Oxford Futures Forum 2014 theme “Design and Scenarios”. One of the most exciting developments from this interaction is the way in which practitioners are re-shaping and re-focusing their approach to their own design and foresight practices.

One of the most interesting recent developments along this vein is the emergence of experiential futures. Merging futures work and design this new technique and practice is creating new spaces for exploring and shaping change.

Future-focused, in all of its manifestations, design necessarily requires finding “particular representations or aspects of ideal things out of a cloud of possibilities.” While the notion of iterating patterns of convergent and divergent thinking are now well understood within the broader design community there is still often a pressure to more quickly skip over the understanding of the broader ‘possible’ worlds for which we are designing. Or, where this focus is present – it is at such a high level that it’s impact on the concrete manifestation of the design process is limited. Similarly, futures and foresight work is normally constrained within a limited number of practice features – with a strong preponderance on workshops and scenario documents – which limits the overall effect and effectiveness of futuring for our clients with this work also generally being conducted at a very high-level of abstraction.

While much of the responsibility for this may be placed on the more limited resourcing – time, money, skilled practitioners etc – that these processes are sometimes afforded by our clients and our own practices, it nonetheless behooves us as practitioners to try where we can to enhance the overall value that we are able to bring both to our disciplines but also to the clients with which we work. Experiential Futures provides us with one such opportunity.

Linked to the practices of Speculative Design and Design Fiction – experiential futures provides us with both a pragmatic tool to build on the advantages of these two forms of modern design technique while also allowing us a very practical impact on our own design practice and processes for our clients (be they for-profit, non-profit, government, or other). As Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan make clear in their outline of experiential futures, it “uses the materiality and idioms of graphic, interaction, and product design, and frequently video, to prototype elements of a possible world; past, present or future.” At base the immersive nature of an experiential approach – crafting a deeper ‘felt’ experience of a world – goes beyond just simply creating interesting experiences and instead “make experiences that lead to the creation of better futures.”

Leading the charge in the creation of this new methodology, Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan have created a simple scaffold for the use of experiential futures as a tool and practice. Candy and Dunagan’s methodology is based on a nested concept of three spaces of encounter:

  • Setting            The theme or kind of the future to be explored (e.g. generic image of the future).
  • Scenario          A specific narrative proposition and sequence of events that emerge from the setting
  • Situation         The circumstances of encounter where particular events are given physical form at 1:1 scale in various media.

The relationship of these three levels – and their use of material artifacts – can be seen in this diagram.

Candy and Dunagan state that this movement towards concrete detail in an experiential scenario can be clarified via a parallel in filmmaking. They go, on to argue that:

A narrative feature film typically goes through a lengthy development process involving an outline early on, then a treatment outlining the setting and the story and characters within it. This is then fleshed out as a screenplay with dialogue etc. Well before the first second of film has been shot, from these documents the designers of sets, props and costumes work out what physical elements of the movie world must be found or created in order to bring the vision to life. Outline, treatment, and screenplay, then, are increasingly detailed expressions of the world in which a film is set and what happens in it. The final translation of written scenes into actors’ performances, together with the tangible paraphernalia completing the simulation, concludes the process. Overall it proceeds from high-level, abstract story elements down to the nitty gritty of 1:1-scale, real-time storytelling. (ref)

This use of a ‘long zoom’ through to concrete practical manifestations of artifacts and processes takes the abstract nature of much foresight and futures work and, building on what design brings to the table in terms of practices, methods and approaches, brings a sense of humanity and of the 1:1 scale that is often missing in futures work to our own practices. In experiential futures work then we see a fruitful merging of the methodologies and tools of the disciplines of foresight and design in the creation of a concrete methodology which enables us to add a depth of detail and context to our practice and, in doing so, create spaces for more value-creation and innovative practices for our clients.

There are limits to it’s use (as there always are for all tools and methodologies) as the Setting ultimately adopted will be just one of many possible settings that could have been chosen; and within that chosen Setting, the particular Scenario is just one of many possibilities, and; the Situation brought to life through this practice is always necessarily just one of the many possibilities that could exist within the chosen Scenario. That said, experiential futures offers an exciting and novel approach to “the design of situations and stuff from the future to catalyse insight and change.”

For more on the development of this new approach to futuring and design see the papers by Candy and Dunagan which can be found here and here.

Images courtesy of: Pixabay