Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Meaning in the Method

This week I have been trying to write a rebuttal for a paper that Erik and I submitted for CHI. It's been a greater challenge than I had anticipated. Some things that have side tracked me are the comments from our reviewers. The paper is about developing new design methods and how that development process can or should be thought of as user-centered design (UCD). That term "user-centered design" has been a pebble in my shoe for a couple of years now. As much as I believe in UCD I also am deeply concerned that it encourages us too much to think about designs in utilitarian terms. This draws us away from deeper notions of what a design means. I believe that the formal nature of what we design, how it is interacted with, the context of its use and just about every other aspect of a design means something to those people who encounter or engage with the design.

So, when I read and contemplate the reviews of our paper the pebble in my shoe grows larger and more annoying. If a design method is designed for use by designers it seems to me that method means something and this creation of meaning is perhaps equal to or even more important than its utility.

So, how can a method mean something? Here is a very simplistic example: if we are creating and using personas as a design method this implies a number of very interesting meanings — everything about the user is important to us, we want to be able to empathize with the user, each user is unique, there is a specific type of user for any given design, etc. These are some of the possible underlying meanings for the method of creating and using personas. Perhaps not the greatest or most profound example but this is just off the top of my head. It seems to me that these meanings are even more important than the utility of the method. These are the "why" in the method.

When a new method is being developed the "why" runs even deeper. Our view of the method needs to not just address how the method addresses the needs and meanings in a designs end use but also what the use of that method means to the designer and what it says to the designer about those that developed the method. If a method is tedious, unpleasant to use, inefficient and produces inadequate results it may "mean" that those who developed the method don't really care about the designers who will use the method. A method that is developed and has these undesirable qualities may mean that the developer is more concerned with a research question or some other aspect of the method. This may be just fine depending on the context. But, I think it's something that we must be aware of.

It is increasingly my belief that our focus on "use" is degrading the "meaning" that is inherent in every design. I believe that people long for meaning and that we do them a great disservice when we as designers create things without deep consideration of what a design will mean when people experience and interact with it. And back the point of this post — new design methods should be developed, not just with "use" in mind but perhaps more importantly "meaning."