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.

No comments:

Post a Comment