Monday, November 17, 2008

A Design Research Map

In the latest issue of ACM Interactions there is an interesting article by Liz Sanders called "An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research". Sanders exmines the status of design research, which I think she sees as the research done by design practitioners as a way to support the design process (even though I am not sure if that is a correct understanding). Sanders has created a "map" where she places design research approaches in relation to each other around two major dimensions: "design-led" versus "research-led" and "expert mindset" versus participatory mindset". I always find maps that lay out a conceptual or intellectual landscape intriguing and useful as tools for reflection. That is also the case here. Sanders map is useful and challenging. It is useful in the sense that it does work as an intellectual tool for reflection, both on an individual level and on a discipline level.

Any map becomes makes us think about definitions, both about what constitutes the landscape but also the "locations" on the map. Since eveything on amap is placed in relation to what is defined as foundational dimensions that make up the space, these dimension become crucial and of course vulnerable for criticism.

The dimensions that Sanders build on work quite well, and do establish an exciting landscape, but they are also possible to further analyze and critique. For instance, I am not sure what is meant by a "resarch-led" perspective. I think Sanders means that this perspective is something that is inherited from "real" research. Maybe this can be seen as how "scientific" the approaches are, for instance "ethnography" is on the map the most "research-led" approach, while the least "scientific" is the "generative". This is an interesting dimension, but is at the same time problematic. What is it that determines something as a "research-led" approach. I could for instance argue that "critical design" with its roots in critical theory is quite "scientific" or research based (however, from the humanities and not the sciences). So, where to place things is a quite difficult and delicate task.

One of the obvious problems, which is not in the map, is the difference between (i) the theoretical foundations of an approach or method, (ii) what the intended purpose of it is by those who created it, (iii) how it is commonly understood by those who use it, and (iv) how it is actually used in practice (this list can be made longer of course). These questions address especially the dimension "expert" versus "participatory" on the map. For instance, I think it is possible to use an approach that is defined as "expert mindset" in a participatory way and vice versa (I have seen participatory approaches being used without any real understading of, or will to create, participation :-)

Another aspect is to what extent the use of approaches are based on their use in practice or if they are based on what is done and written about by academic researchers in the field. There is a unfortunate confusion in our field between what practictitioners do and what is done by researchers. There is often a distinct difference in the way an approach is used in practice and when it is used by researchers. The same approach can therefore, depending on how it is understood and used, end up almost anywhere on the map.

I am not arguing that the map is not useful or necessary wrong, on the contrary, I think my discussion above shows the value of a map like this. It does force us to think about our definitions and our way of describing what is done in practice and in research. I am looking forward to more "maps" since I see this as level of theorizing that concerns our understanding of the whole field. This is what constitutes an academic field, makes i visible and an entity, and therefore also possible to approach, debate, and critique.


Jesse Beach said...

"There is a unfortunate confusion in our field between what practitioners do and what is done by researchers."

After a year of "practitioning" I couldn't agree more. The pressure to do is the daily trump card in my professional life; it often preclude the pressure to think, or at least to think deeply. The only thoughtful design I get to do is hasty iteration on hasty established designs.

And selling a design often turns on a key talking-point pulled from the book of an 'expert' rather than some well-formed research opinion. Nielson speaks in sound bites and memorizable chunks. The koans of design thought are too obtuse for daily use.

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