Parallels between design and research, perils of design research

Today I read ”What is Interpretive Ethnography?” by H. L. Goodall Jr. in the collection Expressions of Ethnography , for my methods section of my dissertation. I also read some chapters from Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton, for the undergrad course I’m teaching in user experience design.

Goodall writes:

“Scholars are people licensed to find uncommon meanings in and about the world and to act on them. I say ‘uncommon’ not to prvilege scholarly pronouncements so much as to admit that we are granted cultural credentials that attest to our having acquired knowledge, skills, and sensitivities—what Kenneth Burke (1989) calls ‘equipment to think with’ that are not readily available to ordinary citizens. I say, ‘act on them,’ because scholars are also given the sacred duty—and singular moral honor—of professiong our uncommon meanings in and to this world ” (p. 58).

Buxton writes:

“Yes, we all choose colours for our walls, or the layout of furniture in our living rooms. But this no more makes us all designers than our ability to count our change at the grocery store make us all mathematicians. … Reducing things to such a level trivializies the hard-won and highly developed skills of the professional designer ” (p. 95).


“[A] designer’s approach to creative problem solving is very different from how computer scientists, for example, solve puzzles. That is, design can be distinguished by a particular cognitive style . … sketching is fundamental to the design process. Furthermore, … a designer’s use of [sketches] is a distinct skill that develops with practice, and is fundamental to their cognitive style” (p. 96).


“[D]esign [is] for the real world—the world that we live in” (p. 97); it is “design for the wild” (p. 37).

The parallels between these two authors writing about two ostensibly different practices—research and design—are obvious. Both say the respective practice requires (1) training and produces individuals who have particular skills and methods, which, implicitly, can be taught and improved, for (2) ways of thinking—“equipment to think with,” knowledge, skills, and sensitivities, in research; sketching in design. Both say the practitioner, researcher or designer, is doing his or her work in order to introduce the product of the work into the world—” professing our uncommon meanings in and to this world” in research; “design for the wild” in design.

So what if research and design are in the abstract very similar?

One implication I can think of that’s been on my mind the past couple days is the type of “research through design” projects that get so easily published at CHI and other HCI venues. In the projects I’m referencing, researchers have participants design technologies as a way for the researchers to learn about participants’ values, worldviews, etc., and then generate (ostensibly!) value-sensitive implications for design. In short: I do not like this approach. It is like the researchers tell participants to speak the researchers’ language when they answer, and then researchers use their own language to interpret what the participants say. What I mean is: design is a skill. It is difficult. It takes a long time and a LOT of practice to gain genuine competency in and sophistication with. We teach our students this. So why do we think having someone, a participant, who has never designed anything of the sort that we are asking them to design (“a contemplative technology”!), or engaged in design thinking—which we struggle to help our students understand!—could possibly express his or her values that way?

The peril, here, is continued “othering” and colonization. This is an aspect of the , without awareness.

I’m thinking now of a bell hooks quotation I read today also, quoted in Michelle Fine’s chapter “Working the Hyphens: Reinventing Self and Other in Qualitative Research” in the Handbook of Qualitative Research (1st ed.):

“I am waiting for them to stop talking about the ‘Other,’ to stop even describing how important it is to be able to speak about difference. It is not just important what we speak about, but how and why we speak. Often this speech about the ‘Other’ is also a mask, an oppressive talk hiding gaps, absences, that space where our words would be if we were speaking, if there were silence, if we were there. This ‘we’ that is ‘us’ in the margins, that ‘we’ who inhabit marginal space that is not a site of domintation but a place of resistance. Enter that space. Often this speech about the ‘Other’ annihilates, erases: ‘No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still the colonizer, the speak subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.” Stop.” (hooks, 1990, pp. 151-152)

Telling people to use our language—the language of design—to express themselves, and then interpreting their designs—our language—to tell a story about them seems to me to be just the kind of thing hooks is describing.

I don’t want to ask participants to describe their values in my language. I want them to speak their own.

This is part of the work of grounded theory — rather than imposing a priori theoretical frameworks on people’s (“subjects’”) meanings, the way I try to do conduct scholarly work is to expose indigenous meanings, community members’ meanings. Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (1995), in Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes , explain, “a field researcher may implicity impose such categories exactly in asking exogenous questions rooted in an a priori research agenda or theoretical framework. Not only might a researcher impose ideas when questioning an ‘informant,’ but she might also impose an inappropriate form of expression whose constraints distort responses ” (p. 111-112). I know the type of design activity researcher I’m critiquing in this post is not ethnographic fieldwork, nor does it claim to be at all. I’m thinking here of how my committee wants me to do a design activity with members of the community I study, which I study ethnographically and with a sincere commitment to explicating members’ meanings (as much as I can, and filtered through my own situated self, which is part of the analytical work). The underlying epistemological views of ethnography/grounded theory and design activities seem incompatible.

Perhaps that is one reason I love teaching so much: it is a way to help people speak. While there are of course issues of power and oppression in the classroom and the higher educational system, what I try to do is help students figure out how they can speak most easily, in their own way, the way that is best for them. This seems to me to be much different than interpreting what people (research “subjects”) are saying and presenting it to an audience. Yet, I feel like my research can have an impact, too. But rather than having that impact through a presentation of the people I studied (e.g., a paper with a thick description of the culture), I hope I can help bring the practices of the community to a larger audience. If I do this and I get the credit for the ideas, though, I’m doing the same colonizing I am critiquing here.

This blog post has many ideas in it. :

  1. Parallels betwen design and research
  2. Perils of design research
  3. Power relationships in research
  4. Epistemological views in ethnography and design activities
  5. Impact—teaching vs. research