Wednesday, May 27, 2015

DSDN 481: Project 9

Academic Critique of “The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research”

Design practices and methods represent ways to deal with challenges and problems that have no singular solution. These so-called “wicked problems” are at the core of what it means to “design”. Understanding this complexity of what design represents and does is an important focal point for Erik Stolterman’s argument in “The Nature of Design Practice and Implications for Interaction Design Research”. Stolterman (2008) suggests that design complexity differs uniquely from scientific complexity, and resultantly the approaches and methods for dealing with said complexity should not be the same (p.55). Stolterman’s background is in Human Computer Interactions Theory (HCI) and Experience and Interaction Design, both of which he lectures as the Professor of Informatics at the Indiana University Bloomington (Indiana University Bloomington, 2015). Grounding the paper in HCI places the written territory firmly into Stolterman’s backyard. With extensive support gathered from a variety of design philosophers and academic papers, Stolterman’s article appears well thought out, thoroughly researched and addresses a current concern for design and its ability to identify where it sits amongst academia. In the following paragraphs I will analyse each of Stolterman’s main ideas, evaluate his claims, and then ascertain the value of his research.

HCI & The Nature of Design Practice
Stolterman (2008) states “One reason why HCI research has not always been successful is that it has not been grounded in and guided by a significant understanding and acceptance of the nature of design practice” (p. 56). This proposition highlights Stolterman’s main argument, one which is heavily supported by Yvonne Rogers’ study “New theoretical approaches for human-computer interaction”. Stolterman and Rogers take similar stances on questioning the nature of design practice and approaches in HCI, especially when it pertains to the usage of design tools and their lack of serious grounding. Rogers (2004) infers that from the perspective of the practitioner there exists a dissonance between the understanding of methods and the actual usage of them, suggesting that this problem might be lie in the overly theoretical nature of design theory and the difficulty in its application (p. 123).

While I don’t disagree with the opinions of either Stolterman or Rogers, I feel like Stolterman’s (2008) analysis of Rogers’ study missed the mark a little bit and resulted in a more monochrome outlook on the subject of “understanding and acceptance of the nature of design practice” (p. 56). Stolterman (2008) makes an assumption that more experienced designers would see these methods as less designerly (read: less suitable or fitting in a design context)” (p. 56). This is quite different to what Rogers (2004) concluded in her study, namely that practitioners of design find HCI theories to be very valuable and informative, yet find the surrounding analytical frameworks much harder to understand and implement than the more basic concepts (p. 123). This isn’t suggested as being a case of the methods being un-designerly, rather the frameworks for them are more involved and challenging. Stolterman could have aided in developing his assumption with a definition of designerly at this point in the paper, as opposed to waiting till the last pages to do so. This would have also benefitted an audience who might be less familiar with the term. While Stolterman’s concluded assumption appears a little fallacious, I wouldn’t necessarily condemn it as being wrong, as ultimately what was concluded from Rogers’ study still supported Stolterman’s primary point.

Stolterman raises valid points on the importance of grounding research in a solid understanding of practice, especially in terms of education. Current in-use practices support Stolterman’s (2008) suggestion of “disciplined educational structures and processes built around concepts and activities such as the use of design studios and design critique” (p. 61). This learning of theoretical concepts through applied learning is one of the definitive qualities of a design education, as Cennamo et al. (2011) conclude “Studio-based-learning … has a long history of use in teaching students to solve design problems” (p. 12). Stolterman’s exploration of the nature of the design practice as a valuable learning and decision-making tool is appropriate, yet there is cause for concern in some of his reasoning in the finer points.

Complexity in Design and Science
The notion and juxtaposition of complexity between design and science is presented by Stolterman (2008) as a means of questioning whether “the underlying principles of scientific methods and approaches (are) transferable and suitable to design practice” (p. 58). It is argued that “in general they are not” (Stolterman, 2008, p. 58), suggesting that designers need to be exceedingly careful in their usage of scientific methods if they don’t fully understand their relation to design practice. Complexity is used as a comparative measure here, since design complexity is suggested as having “almost fundamentally opposite goals and preconditions (to the) … scientific approach” (p. 59). Complexity in design is what gives designers the ability to function. Without an inherently complex state and the ability to create “something non-universal, …. (or) the unique particular” (Stolterman, 2008, p.59), designers end up being marred by design paralysis.

The rationale for linking complexities to the issue of appropriating approaches and techniques is to do with the different forms of complexity often being “mixed and seen as related and similar” (Stolterman, 2008, p. 59). The problem here is evident. If the complexities are seen as similar, then why not use similar approaches to deal with them? Stolterman (2008) rightly identifies that scientific and design fields approach complexities with two different intentions. Design seeks to expand the field by setting problems, as opposed to problem solving (p. 62). Donald Schön (1983) suggested previously  that “science can only be applied to well-formed problems (that are) already extracted from situations of practice” (p. 47). Designers in my experience have issues understanding their place in academia, especially with regard to the usage of established scientific techniques. That is not to say that there aren’t designers who successfully appropriate scientific methods to their intentions.

I argue that design’s strength lies in its ability to be multi-disciplinary, pulling both qualitative and quantitative approaches and methods into the research phase of any project. Ultimately though the intention of the designer is going to be the guiding force for the methods used. If the intent is to create a more universal solution, I would argue that scientific methods are not only valid, but essential. However, if the intent is to create something with a “specific purpose, … for a specific situation, … done with limited time and limited resources” (Stolterman, 2008, p. 59) then the intention of the designer is to create a “desired reality manifested as an ultimate particular” (Stolterman, 2008, p. 59). This intention and usage scenario belies the use of a universal scientific method, and would involve a much more holistic approach to the entire process. This is the core of the design approach. Recognising the constraints and limits on the project ensures that the solution works successfully in that desired reality.

Design Research & Conclusions
Stolterman presents interesting concepts, yet I feel like few conclusions were drawn by the end of the reading. A lot of the writing appears to merely summarise concepts and bring knowledge from a variety of sources together, only highlighting problems designers often seem to already be aware of. The statement “We need to accept design complexity as a real and practical problem that every interaction designer faces” (Stolterman, 2008, p. 63) appears obvious. Naturally design complexity is a real problem for designers, whether their field is HCI, Interaction Design or even Industrial Design. All areas of design have to deal with complexity, since this is what it means to be a designer and do design.

The resounding issue for me is that Stolterman’s paper does little more than enforce the status quo. All of his ideas touch on interesting areas and begin to suggest the importance of applied learning of approaches and methods, yet he fails to suggest exactly where the research should go next. The approach Stolterman suggests with respect to design complexity is something I do however fundamentally agree with. Design being about the “specific, intentional, and non-existing” (Stolterman, 2008, p. 59) and seeking to create things with specific purposes in specific contexts is something I appreciate. Designers would be naïve to design all-encompassing solutions to problems, as the very nature of design is to understand that problems have many possible solutions, all of which can be valid. My thesis would find this approach beneficial, as it develops an appreciation for where design sits in academia and ensures understanding that success is all relative.

Cennamo, K., Brandt, C., Scott, B., Douglas, S., McGrath, M., Reimer, Y., & Vernon, M. (2011). Managing the Complexity of Design Problems through Studio-based Learning. Interdisciplinary Journal Of Problem-Based Learning, 5(2), 12-36.

Indiana University Bloomington,. (2015). Erik Stolterman - Professor of Informatics. Retrieved 25 May 2015, from

Rogers, Y. (2004) New theoretical approaches for human-computer interaction. In B. Cronin (Vol. Ed.), Annual review of information, science and technology: Vol. 38 (pp. 87-143). Medford, NJ: Information Today

Stolterman, E. (2008). The nature of design practice and implications for interaction design research. International Journal of Design, 2(1), 55-65.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

DSDN 481: Project 8

Wicked Problems - Social Housing & Reform

Q ~ 1          A Problem Worth Solving
Social Housing. The supply of it, the regulation of it, and the construction/purchase of more of it are all presently on the political table for New Zealand. The Social Housing Reform Bill passed under urgency in Parliament in November 2013 is part of a multi-year plan to advance capabilities of NZ in terms of social housing and aiding vulnerable citizens. The Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (2015) states that the review of the NZ social housing sector revealed “a number of issues, including … the current social housing environment was not sustainable, ...increasing demand, … not enough social housing providers” (para. 4-5).

While positive social housing reform seems like a no-brainer, NZ social housing is likely becoming temporary housing for a lot of people. David Hargreaves (2015) states that with respect to the reform, “we've received quite a lot of fluff and very little meat” (para. 2), while Labour’s Housing Spokesman Phil Twyford (2013, as cited in Fox, 2013) stated that “National was squeezing state houses in a time of great need” (para. 20), and the resultant changes would heavily affect the funding available as well as strain sheltering capabilities.

Q ~ 2          Research Context
Hargreaves (2015) suggests the supply of social housing in Wellington falls short of estimated demand in 10 years time. Wellington is a useful location for this research as the Wellington City Council (2015) manages “2300 houses and units...around the city” (para. 10), which places both the tenants, owners, local government and national government all within walking distance. The tenants and local council are both stakeholders in this “wicked problem”, and will be affected by the outcome of any proposed solution.

Activities would be done to ascertain the perceptions of the stakeholders (tenants) in the usage of social housing as temporary living. Activities would strive to understand the day-to-day experiences of the stakeholders in the usage of spaces in temporary social housing and look to creating a solution through the use of design as research.
Q ~ 3          Research Question, Aims & Objectives
I think social housing should be a means of getting people back onto their feet. I see potential in Social Housing becoming outfitted temporary housing, looking at how provided objects and spaces could function as dynamic entities.  Refining this into the topic “Customisable Temporary Accommodation as Social Housing” allows formulating a question looking at components of customisation, e.g, furniture, objects, designed systems.

Question - How might the engagement with spaces in temporary social housing be impacted by a collaboratively designed system?

Aim 1 - I want to develop an understanding and insight into the way tenants use spaces in temporary social housing.
Objective A - I will monitor and deconstruct the way spaces in temporary social housing are 
currently used by people.
Objective B - I will collaboratively analyse and explore the way objects and furniture are used 
creatively beyond their original intended function.
Aim 2 - I want to design & explore designed systems as a means of facilitating greater personalisation of spaces in temporary social housing.
Objective A - I will develop an understanding of needs and constraints through prototyping 
and collaborative testing.
Objective B - I will refine and construct a modular system that can meet a multitude of needs 
in temporary social housing.

Q ~ 4          Research Methods
Initial exploration of work - Phase 1 involves developing an understanding of the users and avenues for collaboration. Site visits, observation, and experience mapping would work towards understanding the spaces and the way people use them. Observation would develop understanding of the users themselves and enable me to choose more suited participatory methods in the following phase. Experience mapping would enable self reporting and collaborative planning for a shared vision in the next phase.

Discovery Processes - Phase 2 seeks to collaboratively develop a shared vision and desired outcome. Bodystorming, mind-mapping, and photo studies would enable collaborative explorations into what the user values in order to develop effective outcomes. Bodystorming and mind-mapping encourage collaborative creative pursuits as well as dissecting the current status quo, all while enabling active design ideation. Photo studies encourage self-reporting by the users and collaborative dissections of the experiences.

Prototyping - Phase 3 involves developing the ideas and understandings from the first two phases into workable systems that suit the priorly identified needs. Mock-ups and cooperative prototyping would be essential here at giving users the ability to test and design the system as well as giving voice to opinions valuable to the designer. Both of these methods would facilitate collaborative physical designing, giving the user opportunities for design input, suggestions, and a sense of ownership as well as reflective analysis.

Q ~ 5          Research Outcomes & Outputs
Gaining a knowledge and understanding of how people and objects fit together in the broader scheme of the wicked problem would enable research to strive towards a concrete solution. The collaboratively outputted designed system would seek to address desire for customisation in a temporary environment and connect users to their homes.

The primary question of success in Participant Design Research (PDR) would be looking at whether there had been an improvement in quality of life for the participants, as well as whether the project and designed system had been developed collaboratively. The question of collaboration is the secondary criterion, yet arguably more important to PDR; defining whether or not the research and its solution had resulted out of methodical group studies and participation. Finally, the last criterion would establish whether or not the project had succeeded through continual reflection and critical analysis, as well as ensuring continued support and user input. All of these criteria support assessing success in the research project, ensuring a more appropriate designed system that effectively considers the users.


Fox, M. (2013). State House For Life No Longer. Stuff. Retrieved 19 May 2015, from

Hargreaves, D. (2015). David Hargreaves tries to make sense out of the Government's plans to shift more social housing into the hands of community providers. Retrieved 19 May 2015, from,. (2015). Social Housing Reform. Retrieved 19 May 2015, from,. (2015). About the Council's Social Housing. Retrieved 19 May 2015, from

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

DSDN 481: Project 7

Ron Swanson & Modular Furniture

1) Select an existing character from literature, television, or film and write a scenario that details their interaction with something you have designed in the past or would like to design in the future.
“Son, I leave my office for very few things. Usually those things involve food or government incompetence, neither of which I see here.” Ron said as he followed me.

Standing in the workshop space, we looked at the indistinct pile of wooden components and pieces. The pieces formed the basis of a modular system that could be used to build a multitude of different pieces of furniture. Ron strode over to the pile, leaning to pick one up.

“Red Oak. Good work. That’s my third favourite timber. Mortise and tenon. Solid choice for a join. Nice job on the bentwood.”

I nodded in response, smiling as I watched him take hold of several pieces and place them on the workbench next to the pile. He chose a small wooden mallet, and moved two of the pieces together before firmly tapping them until they meshed. His moustache wrinkled a little as he frowned at the shaped pieces of timber.

"Any idea what you’re going to make, Ron?"

"Something I can call my own. Please understand that I know more about this than you do." I saw him smirk as he said this, picking out pins from the pile to complete the joints. He gave the two parts a twist to see if the joint would hold. It did so with a creak, and I saw a deep furrow edge over his brow.

"You’re certainly no cabinet maker. Next time, get the the edges smoother and the joints cleaner." His criticisms felt harsh, but I could tell he meant well. On the workbench, what looked like a chair was beginning to take shape as Ron slotted the next pin into place. With a sharp tap of the mallet, the pin slid into just the right spot.

"I feel like I'm six years old again. My father used to give me old pallet pieces filled with nails and send me outside to make stuff. I got tetanus twice." I laughed at this. “I nearly died.” I immediately went silent as he eyeballed me. He held the stare for a couple of seconds before flipping the piece over and started lining up the legs. He lined up the pegs with the slots, pushing the parts together slowly and deliberately. The parts slid together with relative ease, and the seat of the chair looked complete.

“So every piece you’re using there could be used for an entirely different piece of furniture”, I explained. He looked up at me with a frown.

“This is the best and only option.” I started to argue against it, but he silenced me with a look. I mouthed a quick “Sorry” to him as he turned back to his work. The chair had legs now, and he was already picking out pieces for the back. A collection of smaller flat planks I had made was forming next to his incomplete chair. He smacked these smaller parts together with some curved struts.  

“I’ve never really cared much for this whole kitsch DIY movement. But I can see how this might get people to make more things. I think that skill is being lost. Make sure that doesn’t happen.” He almost seemed to be enjoying himself. I had hoped he might. Ever since I first made friends in the Parks department, I’d heard about the legendary Ron Swanson. I knew I had to have him test my design, and he’d reluctantly accepted.

His chair was finished. He’d usurped my original concept a little bit, and decided there was only one way to make things; his way. With a smile, he smoothed his moustache, then turned and sat in his creation. He leaned back and sighed, clasping his hands behind his head, smiling at the ceiling.

“Now, son, for my work here I was promised Lagavulin and bacon-wrapped shrimp. You had better deliver.”

2) Reflect on your scenario, in writing, addressing what you think are the strengths and limitations to using storytelling techniques to explore design.
The key element of Ron’s interaction with the design was that I was only able to shape, not determine precisely how he used the system. The way he used it came down to who he was as a character; something that I was unable to define. The strength of scenario writing is in its ability to mirror real people and real situations. In the real world, I can only ever guide people in their usage of the design, and even that won’t always be possible. People interact with objects in unexpected and unique ways and as a result, my design would be subjected to uses it wasn’t intended for. Writing the scenario allowed me to explore some of the potential uses and outcomes that Ron as a specific character might explore. The depth of Ron as a character with more defined traits and facets than a blank persona enables me to explore deeper involvements and outcomes with more dynamism and believability.

The problem inherently stems from this attempted mirroring of real life. What makes scenario writing so successful is also one of its greatest shortcomings. Because I, the designer, write the scenario, ultimately this still limits the potential outcomes to versions of the situations that I can think of. Despite toying with a character who is entirely different to me, I am still limited to the breadth of my own imagination and creativity. Employing real people with real stakes in a design would almost certainly expose new and different understandings, perceptions, and opinions.

Scenario writing presents itself as a powerful tool for conceptual phases of design, but is likely to fall off in usefulness as more in-depth analysis and development of design exploration is required.