Acknowledgments   – Thanks to  Carlos Arango  of the erstwhile  ReFINDesign  Workshop in Columbus, OH for help with the bi...
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And now for something different: boundary crossings as mechanisms of research

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Slides from a pecha kucha talk given at the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC 2011).

Abstract: I explore opportunities for reframing research methods & practice by borrowing approaches from other disciplines. Along the way, I share examples of recent work that straddles boundaries, and compare existing ways of doing research that are tied into product development/organizational processes with the kinds suggested by the works.Further, I raise the question of what the role of research in innovation is, approaching Don Norman's recent "design research doesn't lead to innovation" question from a completely different angle - one that is more hopeful and less a fallback to an explanation from technology. I use the conclusions to point towards reasons for collaboration with other disciplines in our professional orbit

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  • So my talk has been made somewhat redundant by Ken Anderson talking about flux and Neal Patel on the quant/qual boundaries. I'm going to talk about some other ways in which boundary crossing can be used to create knowledge. My fundamental thesis is that we – as applied ethnographers & researchers – are not tapping into all the ways that humanity has of creating perspective
  • (yes, this is me) It's safe to say that the various disciplines in this room all have different ways of creating knowledge. I think that using each others' ways can reframe how we go about our business: my thesis is that ‘doing research’ is not the only way in which we can create knowledge, that the product development cycles we take for granted aren’t the only possible relationship between research & design/development, and that one way we can explore this is to actively cross boundaries (methodologically and conceptually).
  • [Frame shift #1] I sometimes like to think of what we do as a craft that uses people as a material . I’m going to talk about a few projects I’ve been involved in that explore that notion to generate perspective.
  • The first project is an investigation of the way in which Google Maps and other tools represent space – what kind of understanding of a neighbourhood do they provide? We could have done it by reviewing geo-located data (think yelp reviews), but that would have been working with a biased data set. It would also have excluded the people who didn’t have a laptop or a smartphone and whose intent would not have just been to find a suitable place or establishment, but to experience the neighborhood.
  • To find out, we put up a large sheet of paper in a busy columbus street, drew a map of it, and asked people to tell us what they loved about the neighbourhood. The key here is to lower the barrier of participation and stay away from associations with the point of comparison. Not make it look like technology
  • This could have turned out like a set of Yelp reviews, with the associated criticality. But the responses were much more varied & nuanced: expressions of joy
  • Emotional articulations of loss and memory, pride & identity – going beyond reviews & directions to describing the nature of the place…
  • … Revealed through narrative. Even variations in mental models of the the boundaries of the neighbourhood (the North Market is by city standards not counted as part of that neighbourhood). (Contrast with the reified, impersonal, strictly cartographic nature of spatial representation in Google & other maps). Avoiding research based on the technology allowed us to discover other aspects of space that are a critical part of experiencing it, and points towards ways to bring those aspects into the technology.
  • [Frame shift #2] We call this ‘ articipatory ’ – from participatory & art. It ’ s a lot more enjoyable than being a subject in social science research. And I think it opens up ways to create data that is also rhetoric, by treating the research process as a structure of participation – see Jeremijenko 2002 and Karaganis 2007 – and re-envisioning it as a mechanism for generating a perspective. Jeremijenko, Natalie. 2008. Keynote at Participatory Design Conference, Bloomington, Indiana, USA. See also Karaganis, Joe, ed. 2007. Structures of participation in digital culture . New York: Social Science Research Council.
  • This next project is precisely about that: creating a visualization of where people biked from to come to a festival, and their ecological impact – in a way that people could immerse themselves in
  • Each bicyclist was asked to spike a small plastic ‘leaf’ onto the limbs of a geographically mapped ‘tree’ representing the neighbourhood they lived in or biked from, one for every trip to the festival. The leaves would aggregate…
  • Taking a series of small acts and turning it into big, visible data that anyone can comprehend with . (the three trees you see visually represent the city’s major biking neighbourhoods, making a case for where the mayor should lay the next few miles of bike lanes).
  • Finally, we used statistics from last year’s festival to calculate ecological impact in human terms – instead of lbs of carbon, scoops of ice-cream. A couple of passers by who had driven that day were even inspired to return the next day on bike.
  • This next project is more directional – we’re trying to figure out how to induce change in a target population (the subset of people who are interested in and are ready to bicycle habitually, but are unclear how to form that habit and sustain it). The way we’re going to do it? We’re going take a representative individual and take them through the process of change.
  • Along the way, we’re going to solve problems, design tools to support that change, interview & analyze behaviors, and synthesize it into a story we can tell others – from policy makers to urban planners to individual people. [Frame shift #3] So instead of doing research to uncover barriers, we’re going to uncover them by designing them away, and instead of just identifying barriers, we’re going to couple them with a structure of change.
  • Why is this important? It’s because we are most of the time operating in the mode of being mediators between our clients and their customers (or stakeholders). But I think that’s too limiting, and it leads to…
  • unimaginative “provocations” like the recent one by Don Norman, where he claims that design research doesn’t lead to innovation. Well, if you think of yourself purely as a mediator, you will inevitably attribute your own powerlessness to technological determinism.
  • There are some things we will always need (however refracted through technologies & institutions). Unfortunately, many of those things are also not the kinds of things we get asked to study. When was the last time you were asked to understand what makes people wonder, and how to bring that into a product? Unless we are able to generate knowledge in a way that pushes our collaborators and clients to think about what they should do, not just what they can do or what their customers’ needs and desires are, we will simply remain stuck in the position of being the discoverers of needs & desires. De-skilling and commoditization will follow.
  • Which brings us back to boundary crossings and my thesis: that research can take more shapes than our methodological orthodoxies, that demonstrating possibilities can be as effective at generating perspective and driving change as our regular charters of uncovering needs, implications and opportunities. [Frame shift #4] We don’t have to follow a waterfall or cyclical or iterative or agile model, where we think of research as a phase of the process, with distinct outputs and inputs – as the examples I talked about show, we can do research that is also design that is also rhetoric that is also collaborative sensemaking.
  • We often tend to model ourselves in terms of different kinds of storytellers and story-tools. But I think there are a lot more options for both than we normally bother considering, especially if we wish to aim for loftier goals and deeper impact. The examples I used have been motivated by the notion of an artistic spectacle, but they have been combined with ideas from participatory design and information visualization to create perspectives that standout and are directional. Ultimately, the methods we use in our work must be inspired by other human endeavors if we are to reframe our role(s) in industry beyond being the facilitators of behavioral & cultural insight.
  • And now for something different: boundary crossings as mechanisms of research

    1. 21. Acknowledgments – Thanks to Carlos Arango of the erstwhile ReFINDesign Workshop in Columbus, OH for help with the bicycling visualization, and Jenn Deafenbaugh of the IttyBitty Studio for collaboration on both case study projects. Images from the bicycling visualization © Jenn Deafenbaugh (2009) used with permission. Creative Commons image of Institute for the Future motto thanks to Jane McGonigal . Disclaimer – The projects and views expressed here, while created during the author’s employment at SonicRim, do not in any way represent the views and claims of SonicRim Ltd and must be purely attributed to the author only.

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