Saturday, December 11, 2004

Innovation through people-centred design

Innovation through people-centred design - lessons from the USA (pdf) (reg. required)

Simon points to the final report from a UK mission to see what American design companies are up to these days. I haven't had a chance to read it all, but a few things immediately stand out.

With an emphasis on understanding and working with social context rather than task completion, the mission sought to better understand things like: "How research techniques such as ethnography are used and valued in organisations", "How cross-cultural or sub-cultural understanding is used" and "How findings are translated into actionable knowledge for designers and engineers". Interestingly, while many companies understood the importance of understanding social context, others pointed out that in practice "thinking about social context [came] after the fundamental design ideas had been formulated." Hmm. I've always believed that the time for intervention is in the early stages, in the first articulation of a design problem or scenario.

In the report, Rachel Jones focusses on the development of innovation processes, and found that only 2 of 20 visited companies had people-centred processes in place. Not surprisingly, organisational barriers were cited as the primary obstacles, and Gary Mortensen-Barker takes a closer look at organisational culture. Paula Neal addresses the issue of translating research insight into innovative product design and development, pointing out that "the translator is not a person, it's a process." Andrew McGrath looks at the intersections and integrations of design and branding - something I've always had a hard time with and will need to read more carefully.

Dan Hill had mentioned his participation in the mission, and in the report he unravels some of his ideas about "self-centred design". I admire Dan a great deal, but have to admit his choice of words in this case doesn't sit right with me. To be self-centred is so... negative. Egotistic. Conceited. The opposite of sociable. Nonetheless, I love the ideas behind the words. Dan is interested in destabilising the power of the designer and in nurturing the creative capacities of users, or more precisely, in harnessing the design capabilities of all people. Believing in amateurs. Good stuff. For example, he writes about how IDEO encourages clients to become designers and how SonicRim "explores collective creativity". He also points out something important: while most or all of the companies visited understand the value of transparent, participatory and ethnographically-informed design, they also understand that anthropological ethnography is a long-term activity and there is still a need for rapid prototyping. In the end, Dan calls for a "careful integration" of the two to achieve a truly adaptive design process.

I was also quite struck by Nina Wakeford's comments on dialogues between designers and academics. Not surprisingly, Intel's People and Practices group and companies like FXPal stand out with high degrees of reciprocity between academia and industry. Nonetheless, Nina describes two major barriers to the use of academic research in design practice: "the difficulty of dealing with specialised terminology and contrasting frameworks for problem solving" and "a lack of clarity amongst US companies about how to measure the positive 'value-added' of academic research, in particular in comparison to user research generated by consultancies." Her recommendations include considering the communication of academic research as itself a "design challenge best tackled by a multidisciplinary team of researchers and designers" and that academics should consider how to actively engage with design agendas, while designers should also consider how they can engage with academic research.

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