Students also considered the notion of activity theory, with its emphasis on motivation and mediation. Originating in Russia and Scandinavia, it has taken hold among HCI researchers — but not, as yet, in the wider design community. Our team found it useful for focusing on how tools (both external and cognitive) help people accomplish goals within socially-contextualized activities (rather than as individuals) as a unit of analysis. They looked at “thingness” — undoubtedly a reaction to the pervasiveness of screen-based information, this approach embraces the handmade, the natural and the physical, but also includes the embedding of digital technologies into physical objects. (A recent article in the New York Times detailed how $30 Arduino boards were bringing artworks to life in museums and galleries. Noted NYU’s Tom Igoe: “Imagine when every piece in a museum has an Arduino built in that can see how people interact and look at the artwork.”) They considered crowdsourcing — the idea that participants across the Internet contribute to and collaborate with others across a wide spectrum of activity (a particularly interesting proposition as it so dramatically opposes the traditional model of the lone scientist or, for that matter, the lone designer). And they looked at the notion of “constructionism.” Developed by MIT’s Seymour Papert several decades ago, it means giving people the tools to help them learn, through actually making something. The idea is that building something physical helps to build, in turn, cognitive structures, a loosely scientific idea that has a great deal to do with the way people process and respond to real information.
We explored different approaches to the notion of objectivity. The “soft sciences,” such as ethnography, tend to acknowledge and embrace subjectivity on the part of the researcher. Hard sciences like physics either reject objectivity outright (think of “Schroedinger's cat” thought experiment, for instance, in which the mere act of observation affects the outcome of an experiment) or, like journalists, scientists try to avoid the issue by relying on other sources of evidence — empirical methods, for example, for data collection and analysis. Indeed, while not necessarily seen as worthy in academic circles, journalistic methods have long been perceived as accepted practice in design research: interviewing people, investigative research, writing it up in concise and coherent stories — this is one of the strongest ways designers come to know their users. Calling it journalism — even investigative journalism — instead of scenarios or user stories exposes critical issues to the budding designer-researcher: it introduces methods, helps to define motives and ethics, and reinforces the necessity for ruthless objectivity.
Which brings us back to design. Designers can help researchers develop better tools for data collection and analysis, informed in turn by research — for example, activity theory can help to think about and design tools to help people accomplish particular goals.
More important than tools, though, research desperately needs design expertise to better communicate its findings. We found this out first-hand when it came time to present the results of our airport project to industry and government officials. So accustomed were they to reading long, boring reports and documents that simply seeing research concisely and visually presented on nicely-designed posters was a revelation to them. Some of the students' work was immediately picked up for commercial development.
It was vindication that we were doing something right. More important to me was watching the students go from designers to researchers: in January they tended to approach projects with already sketched-out ideas in their heads; by June they were already formulating their own methodologies and handing in publication-quality research papers.
As designer-researchers, we can make our own tools for investigation. This is nothing new; think of science from Leonardo to the Large Hadron Collider. Or indeed, design research methods such as “cultural probes” developed by Bill Gaver, Tony Dunne and Elena Pacenti. There is an urgent need — and opportunity — for well-designed presentations of scientific data which go beyond screen-based eye candy, informed by research into cognition and perception, as well as conveying meaningful content.