At the Pop!Tech conference last fall, I gave a talk that focused on the social tension that occurs with the introduction of new technologies, including turn-of-the-second-to-last-century portable cameras, and could have applied equally to the Walkman (remember them?) and mobile phones. My talk touched on technology use and whether "adoption" is pro-active, passive or even conscious. I also discussed the consequences of near-time facial recognition; how DNA testing reveals parental discrepancy and will for many change the notion of "family," how public displays are increasingly monitoring the world around us, and what all this means for designers who are creating products, services and systems in which consumption, use and adoption is sometimes conscious, sometimes not. A central tenet of the talk was that as more of what we design is jacked into our social network, the option of whether to use or opt-into a technology or service becomes one of opting into or out of society. (Download my entire Pop!Tech presentation here [PDF, 12MB].)
The talk prompted questions related to the design imperialism discussion that has preoccupied some in the design community, and a rally against globalization (for a related interview, click here). In previous instances when I've been asked questions along these lines, the motivation for asking was driven by an anger against the all-trampling BigCorps and me as an agent of the BigCorp, a fear/recognition of not being in sufficient control, and on occasion also guilt (where the person asking the question has trouble balancing their own consumption habits with the injustice of other people not having the same economic opportunities).
Whereas the design imperialism debate honed in on local interventions, this essay will focus on my experiences working with multi-national corporations and organisations. I'm not suggesting that the lessons outlined here are the same as for more local initiatives, nor am I making a judgment on the pros or cons of local or global design solutions—that would need to be visited on a case by case basis. And yes, I recognize that the international aid / donor community has for many years overlooked locally sustainable solutions often at the detriment of communities that they were there to serve—this imbalance has been a personal driver to understand for myself for much of my career. I do assume that the benefits of globalization in the short term (~20 years) outweighs the costs and the opportunity costs.
In this second installation of my "Imperialist Tendencies" essay, I'd like to present a backgrounder on the role of design research / ethnography that was referred to in the talk and some of the nuances of the approach that I think make the process one that is rewarding for the individuals concerned, their communities, our teams that conduct the research and employer, and ultimately the client.
Research for Design
The basic premise of design research is that spending time in the contexts where people do the things that they do can inform and inspire the design process with a nuanced understanding of what drives people's behavior—which can then be used as a foundation for understanding and exploring the opportunities for new products and services.
More often than not the process leads to innovating on what already exists. The practice is mostly associated with up-front research at the beginning of the design process, but in my experience it is valuable to think of it as a state of mind that can infuse, inform and inspire across and often beyond the project. Often researchers get ahead of themselves and talk about the opportunities they perceived after uncovering unmet needs. The fact is in many cases needs are being met, just not particularly well. The process assumes, of course, that the project is aligned to the client's organisation and goals, and that the team knows how to apply the right mix of methods, understands how to make sense of what they are collecting and can articulate the opportunities that comes from this. Some people and/or agencies are good at parts of the process, far fewer can carry off the whole. Just as there are many different ways to design, there are many ways to run design research. For my clients, design research is particularly effective when it explores the collision of people, technology, culture, and business models to inform what, when and how to make something and understand how best to get there.
Corporate research studies are often about a 2-month sprint: a week or two to ramp up; a week each in two or three research locations; two weeks of pure synthesis; and two weeks to write and deliver a report. Most projects have some form of hand-over workshop with the client, and for a larger consultancy like frog, this is usually the bridge to a design phase—where the ideas/concepts are further explored and evaluated, before being refined with increasing levels of fidelity. A research + design project can run for 6+ months, but I'll focus on the research phase here since it is most relevant. The client often wants the research yesterday and it is common for the team to be working 24/7 with only a couple of days break over the course of the research—stepping back only after its all done and dusted.
Common criticisms of this format of corporate research include: the time on the ground is so limited that the breadth and quality of the data is likely to be suspect; that the incoming team is insensitive to how things are done locally; that the broad range of locations and limited total time span doesn't allow for building meaning relationships with local partners; that the team suffers burn-out; that engagements with participants and local partners is at best superficial and at worst disrespectful; and that the opportunity areas/concepts/ideas that come out of this process bear little or no acknowledgement to local needs.
All are valid concerns.
All can be mitigated.
Mitigation is not always the smartest move.Many design research projects also include an element of what practitioners would broadly describe as participatory design—where participants are either brought in for some or all of the ideation, evaluation or design process. Using participatory design to create products to sell in the global marketplace is very different from designing with and for a specific community—something that I appreciate is important for some of you reading this—a good example of the latter is the approach espoused by fellow Pop!Tech speaker Milenko Matanovic's work at the Pomegranate Center. Participatory design for corporate clients can lead to a moral and legal conundrum—ensuring that participants are adequately rewarded for their intellectual contribution while balancing the needs of the client to legally be able to use the outcomes of the sessions. For this reason, the participatory design sessions that I run are guided by the following principles:
Be up-front about how participant's contributions will be used
Be pro-active about the issue of the ownership of an idea and devote as much time as is needed to discuss the issue—even if it eats into other planned activities. There's nothing like a researcher trying to "stick to the schedule" to give a participant the sense they are being hoodwinked.
Advise participants not to share anything that they don't want the team and/or the client to have the legal right to commercially exploit. The name of the client is often not revealed or is revealed under a Non-Disclosure Agreement so trust can be an issue. It is common to reveal an abstraction of the client e.g. "a top tier consumer goods company"
Reward the session participants with equitable compensation
Ensure that every member of the team understands these principles and how they play out in practice
Defining "equitable compensation" can sometimes be tricky for the simplest of design research activities (e.g. a home interview), but is especially problematic when researching highly financially constrained communities where the gulf between the wealth/power of the participants and the researchers can be considerable. The decision about whether to join the study can come down to being one of whether there will be food on the table at the end of the day.
Equitable compensation is even more significant in participatory design—where the line between a participant's "bright idea" contribution and a product/service on the market appears to the layman to be short—they assume it won't take long before their idea will make the company billions. While it is not that common an occurrence, it is within this context that the ownership of ideas comes up, and from my experience this is more of a hot potato issue in some countries, e.g. India, than others. Anyone who has tried to drive a concept, idea through an organisation will know how far removed from reality a rapid from-idea-to-market is. Each idea is reinforced, challenged and shaped with input from many different sources, including the team's gestalt knowledge. Plus it takes a significant investment of tens if not hundreds or thousands of people to turn an idea into a product or service that people are willing and able to buy.
At some point the equitable compensation issue can create a relationship that is closer to "subcontractor-subcontractee" than "interviewer-interviewee" or "co-participants" with everything that that entails. As full-time employees of a consultancy and before that a BigCorp, my colleagues and I are also bound by these contracts—when we are paid to apply our knowledge to a particular issue, our output belongs to our employer. Changing the relationship to be more transactional is not inherently a bad thing—except when the team doesn't recognize the impact of that change. In communities and households with very low levels of income, the opportunity to earn additional income is valued, as is having a customer base that for the time that they are on the ground, includes the research team.
There are other ways to structure participatory design sessions so that the outcomes are co-owned by the attendee stakeholders. These same BigCorps do invest in events where the attendees retain ownership of their ideas—for example, discussion might come under the Chatham House Rule, but these are normally not suited to achieving a focused design. These events are also often run under the auspices of the marketing department, which tells you something about their perceived value, and skills required internally.
As a side-note there are interesting issues related to international IP law, and what is considered equitable compensation for employees who create IP that leads their employer to make billions (or trillions if we're talking Japanese Yen). The inventor of the Blue LED or anyone whose patents make it into the global standards specifications are prime examples, although most patents are likely to sit on the shelf until the patent attorneys go to war.
The challenge for researchers in setting up a more transactional relationship with a participant is that setting the wrong level of compensation sets the wrong tone and can bias the responses. In my experience, too many researchers over-compensate—preferring to spend too much money rather than figure out what the "right" amount is. Throwing money at a problem, any problem leads to bigger headaches later on, and overpaying in communities where finances are tight creates significant distortions that can be difficult to recover from.