by Alan Millar
I was in Chicago for the 2010 Design Research Conference hosted by the School of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. This year’s theme was a bold statement and a challenge to the speakers and attendees to focus the conversation on ‘the new frontiers of design research’.
In his opening remarks, Don Norman asserts that an unacceptable chasm separates design researchers (the people who think about and study things) from implementers (people who build and market things). He argues that while user-centered design is useful for incremental changes the large, radical transformations like the WWW, automobile and flying machine are almost always the result of leaps in technology. By focusing on ‘meaning innovation’ design research can bridge the chasm and more effectively nudge business to new levels of innovation and user-acceptance.
'The Swiss watch (an heirloom and prestige ornament for the elite) is democratized by the Japanese digital watch (a practical tool made for everyone) is redefined as a fashion statement projecting the wearer’s individuality – the Swatch.'
He channels Vergenti’s conclusion that interpreters1 are necessary to bridge the gap between design researchers and implementers. Product designers (and others) can fill this role by realizing and communicating meaning-changing designs. This is research product managers can use to advocate innovative business decisions and that engineers can act upon to deliver game-changing innovation rather than repackaged versions of the same old thing.
Shrink-it and pink-it is dead.
Erika reports that as the person in charge of the day-to-day operations of most households throughout the world, women buy or influence 80% of all household purchases. Yet 71% of women feel that marketers consider them important consumers only of cleaning and beauty products.
Erika presents the Flip camera, Mini-Cooper, Lowe’s total user experience (website, store and services) and a new line of medical scrubs2 as the realization of a sophisticated cross-gender approach to product design.
‘Sometimes the opportunity is to design for both genders—because the end result is better for both.’
One of the most amusing moments of her talk was also the most practical for design researchers—the previous day’s workshop participants3 reading hand-written letters to their ex’s: their slow cable provider, inscrutable Gmail, expensive phone company and others. Smart Design uses these ‘break-up’ letters in workshops to encourage participants to express themselves where they otherwise might not be so forthcoming.
Up in the Air
Autodesk’s Doug Look channeled the recent George Clooney film to punctuate his well-paced exploration into ‘What’s Next’ for design research.
‘It’s time to get over the fascination with methods and tools and focus on ways to influence and execute.’
Doug suggests solving at multiple levels so that we may better apply research to the task of bringing products to market. Reflecting on the bold statement of the conference tagline, he counters that design research is confidence, not arrogance. What’s next is that design research contribute more effectively to product leadership and vision and – through applied knowledge – inspire, facilitate, connect and empower all participants.
Save the World
Perhaps Kevin Starr throws down the most provocative design challenge of all. Do your research and save the world.
‘Mulago4 works like a social impact venture fund to seed and grow the most promising solutions in health, development, and conservation in settings of poverty.’
Kevin has seen it all, from spectacular failures like the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ initiative to the expensive and ultimately user-unfriendly merry-go-round water pumps that were delivered at great cost to funders and minimal lasting benefit to struggling communities they were meant to assist. He used the treadle-powered water-pump5 as a mirror of success.
Analyzing these successes and failures inspired the creation of the design iteration flow format tool (DIFF), which is ‘designed to be simple enough to use and complex enough to do the job.’ The job is designing the most promising solutions to seemingly intractable social problems.
Kevin’s challenge is one that all of us in the design community should strive to meet.
1 Design Mind (2009, December 27). Time for Marketing Innovation 2.0, Tim Leberecht. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from http://designmind.frogdesign.com/blog/time-for-marketing-innovation-20.html
2 Case Study, Smart Design. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from http://www.smartdesignworldwide.com/work/project.php?id=169
3 2010 Design Research Conference Sex Ed Workshop. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from http://www.vimeo.com/11854531.
4 The Mulago Foundation: How We Think About Impact. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from http://www.tacticalphilanthropy.com/2009/07/the-mulago-foundation-how-we-think-about-impact
5 Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (2008, February 8). Treadle-powered Water Pumps Help Desert Agriculture. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 20, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080204134602.htm