Qualitative Interviewing = Adventure!

The first sentences in the book Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data by Herbert and Irene Rubin book read:

Qualitative interviewing is a great adventure; every step of an interview brings new information and opens windows into the experiences of the people you meet. Qualitative interviewing is a way of finding out what others feel and think about their worlds.

Through qualitative interviews you can understand experiences and reconstruct events in which you did not participate. Through what you hear and learn, you can extend your intellectual and emotional reach across time, class, race, sex, and geographical divisions.

Qualitative interviewing builds on the conversational skills that you already have.

Bold emphasis is mine. I think I’m going to enjoy this book. Fingers crossed!

The User-Maker and the Designer

As I’ve been analyzing Steampunk-modified keyboards the last couple of days, and pulling together my analysis of the interviews I’ve conducted thus far, I began to use the term user-maker to describe the people for whom I am attempting to help designers, well, design for.Design research is a funny beast, in that my work, unlike my fellow interaction design masters candidate peers, is not for the end-user as traditionally known. My deliverable at the end of this semester, at the end of my graduate career, will be a design framework for designers who want to empower their users to do personal appropriation.

This is very important. I am looking at a particular subset of users, the user-maker as I’ve dubbed them, and I’m designing a framework for a particular subset of designers, the designer who wishes to empower their user-maker.

What, then, is a user-maker?

There are users, and then there are user-makers, or so I theorize. There are people who will buy a laptop, and essentially leave its casing as it was bought, and then there are people who add stickers and other casemods to claim the laptop for their own. Or better yet, there are people who do an entire casemod like Datamancer, where you have to turn a key to turn on the laptop.

A user-maker is not just a user of the designed artifact. A user-maker is not just a maker, who likes to take existing objects and alter them, or make something new from scratch. A user-maker is some combination of the two, and may not realize they are such. One of my interview subjects said that most Steampunk modders probably don’t see themselves as designers, even though they are designing. This makes sense to me; I don’t consider myself a mathematician though I can do complex math (simple math, however, continues to elude and frustrate me).

A user-maker sees objects, objects that most others see as finished pieces, as creative fodder. Most people, when looking at a keyboard, do not see their next project. The same goes, I suspect, for monitors, cell phones, laptops, etc. I would add desktop machines to the list, but I feel they are a separate category because of the history of hacking and modifying desktops to suit gamer/programmer/designer needs.

This is why I believe it’s important that we designers consider designing for disassembly. People modify and hack their desktop machines because they have the ability to do so without destroying the function of the machine. Well, unless something goes wrong. Technologies like cellphones, laptops, monitors, mice, they aren’t made for that kind of interaction.

Except for the user-maker, who sees where the plastic joins together and wonders, “hmm. If I take a flat-head screwdriver, I could probably do something cool with that.”

I’m not saying every product should have the potential to be disassembled so the user-maker can transform it into something else. But what if more products were designed with disassembly in mind?

What would happen to the way we consider and use technology, especially those of us (myself included) who enjoy bringing meaning to their lives and the objects in their lives by making?

Design Research as a Design Problem

I had an impromptu conversation with the indomitable Chad Camara the other day that left a mind bomb in my head. Well, not a mind bomb, per se, because he didn’t leave the thought and let it go off later, but rather was blunt about his point and it stuck with me. In any case, I thought I’d blog about it.

You see, Chad made the most excellent point that I am doing something out of the ordinary for design research. While doing my capstone, which is a research-themed capstone, and therefore is termed as design research, I have recognized I have two levels of users:

  1. Designers
  2. End users (i.e. the designer’s users)

I realized this for a number of reasons. I had an inkling about this from the start, which helped my preliminary research. As mentioned in a previous post, I unveiled the first draft of my design theory to members of my cohort and quickly realized it wasn’t tailored to them, but their supposed users. Since then, I have been careful to conduct end user interviews to help build my design guidelines while always keeping my user in mind, the designer. As mentioned previously, I want to create an infographic which brings relevance, meaning, a convincing argument to designers to use my design guidelines.

Bridging the Gap

This brings me back to Chad’s point: the method in which I am conducting my design research is helping bridge the gap between design academics and design practitioners. Typically, a design academic will do research about end users and artifacts, determine a theory, and present it to design practitioners as-is, believing the research will do the convincing.

This, as I’m sure we can all guess, rarely works with practitioners. Why? Because the design theory hasn’t been put into context. The theory isn’t meant to be digested and used by practitioners in a practical way, as a practitioner might expect. At least, that’s how it seems to me. The way my method differs from this traditional method of design academic -> design practitioner is that I recognize it isn’t a one-way street from academy to practice.

Designing Design Research

In fact,  I’m treating my research as if it were a design problem itself. I am treating my design guidelines/framework as if it were an artifact where I need to keep my user (design practitioners) in mind if I want them to use it. And I do. I think it’s so important that we, as design practitioners and academics, look at how we can empower our users to make artifacts their own. If I want design practitioners to take my guidelines seriously, it is imperative that I consider them as I create my guidelines. I need to design for my user.

This seems like common sense to me. If I’m going to design for my user, I’d like to bring my user in for “testing” to make sure I’m on the right track. This isn’t the case, however, with much of design research. It seems rare to me, and to Chad obviously, that design academics bring design practitioners in to poke holes in their theories.

I want designers to poke holes in my theory. I’d rather they do it now, while I’m in the midst of forming it. This way, I have a solid idea, rather than later, when I’m presenting to my cohort before graduation and look foolish for having not considered X, Y, or Z.

Again, this seems obvious to me. I am glad Chad reminded me that the obvious, the common sense, the everyday, is more often than not anything but for anyone who isn’t privy to the ever-churning thoughts in my head.