Crankiness is Overrated: Good Work is Harder Than Grumbling
When we take hold of a powerful tool and use it to shape the daily lives of real people, we are laid under an obligation, a responsibility, to understand not only how that shaping could affect those daily lives, but how it should do so. The “good” in “good design” has, in the last twenty years or so, migrated from the relatively simple appreciation of an end-product’s formal properties to include the ways in which a product becomes what it is: the process of designing. In the course of that migration, “users” and “experience” have become central to the way design works, to how the things which it produces are evaluated. Under any number of labels (“user-centered design research”, “ethnographics,” “anthrojournalism” and so on) the (largely) social sciences-derived research which informs the work of design has grown into a small industry of its own. Taken as a whole, design research has resulted in a collective paying of more attention to people rather than less. That’s a ‘good’ in pretty much anyone’s book. But it is also, in practice, a bit like supposing that because an M.D. is doing rounds, looking into patients’ rooms and signing the charts, good medical care is being practiced. If designers have been less than explicit about the values that inform the choices they make, it seems that design research as a whole has been even less so. The most widely accepted ‘point’ of design research is to inform the work of design. To provide a basis from which the work of design, development, and strategy can proceed. It is a bit circular: we do research to inform the process of design, which requires that we understand the users. Circular or not, it would be just fine if what was required to “inform” design were no more than a scan of current conditions. A pH strip dipped in the pool. A thumb licked and held up in the breeze. But the best design work doesn’t need the thumb in the air; good designers or teams or practices are usually plugged in and working at the ragged front end anyway. What we need from research is more than description, and especially, more than a list of “needs,” explicit or implicit, met or unmet. We need a way to explicitly articulate the values that inform those decisions, and a basis on which to do so.
Rick is an interdisciplinary social scientist with a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Chicago. He was a co-founder of E.Lab, a research and design consultancy, and then Chief Experience Officer at Sapient. Both firms were pioneers in the development and application of ethnographic and observational research approaches for clients such as BMW, Ford Motor, General Mills, General Motors, McDonald’s, Sony, and Warner-Lambert. He is the co-author of The Art of Seeing, as well as numerous articles on design and research. He is currently an independent consultant and Partner in Sideriver Ventures.