Friday, May 20, 2016

Comments on Pieter Vermaas article "A logical critique of the expert position in design research: beyond expert justification of design methods and towards empirical validation"

In the latest issue of the journal "Design Science" there is a really interesting article by Pieter Vermaas. In this article Vermaas examines the idea of what he labels the "expert position" among those who study design. The expert position is hold by those who, according to Vermaas, try to extract aspects of the work of expert designers with the purpose to transform that into prescriptive design methods. The idea is of course that if expert designers are well suited to do design well, then what they do should be 'copied' or at least used as a template by non-expert designers. However, Vermaas argues that this is a highly problematic position for several reasons. First of all, he questions the idea that 'extracted' expert behavior and thinking is even possible to 'use' by non-professionals. The argument is that the process used by experts is based on extensive education, training, practice and maybe even talent. The second aspect that Vermaas raises is the problem of validation. He questions the possibility to validate that certain behaviors and thinking of a designer leads to certain outcomes.

The arguments that Vermaas makes are important and it becomes a serious and damaging critique of a lot of research that aims at developing new design methods. Vermaas shows in the article how the 'expert position' easily becomes conservative since it focuses on the existing practice of expert designers while neglecting radically new practices. At the end of the article Vermaas shows that there is potentially an opportunity to validate certain aspects of being a designer that could lead to desired outcomes but it is an approach that rests on serious empirical investigations that requires a lot of work.

Overall I find this article to be highly needed and it opens up for a problem that I have been working on for some time and that is the questionable value of the enormous efforts in many design fields (maybe especially in HCI and interaction design) devoted to the development of new design methods. Most often these methods are proposed without being properly validated. In many cases the validation consists of a small study (often with students) who are given a design problem and asked to use a new method. The evaluation then consists of interviews with the participants (did they like it?) and sometimes some form of evaluation of the outcome. Together these two rudimentary validations are then taken as 'evidence' that the proposed method is useful.

Of course, there is a different form of 'validation' that Vermaas does not discuss in the paper but could be seen more as more designerly and that is that, at least, experienced designers are able to recognize and judge the potential value of a new method themselves, even without any validation. But that is another aspect of the problem that would take this discussion in a different direction.

I strongly suggest that anyone who is engaged in developing new design approaches, methods, or techniques, read this article by Vermaas.


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