Reflections on Design Research: Framing the Problem

This is the first post in a series of posts I'll be writing about human centered design. I see these posts as a way to help me think about and verbalize what I do by practicing and getting feedback on these essays.

I've been involved in the field of human centered design for the past two and a half years. It's a field that has at its core a meta-level of analysis and synthesis on the design process. A process that many say started at IDEO, and it's a problem solving technique that has greatly shown its impact in Silicon Valley. But there a other design firms, like frog design, which also demonstrate a similar design philosophy.

The design research process is about creating new wisdom for the purpose of designing tools that solve problems people face as they go about their lives and perform their jobs. I think the most important part of the design research process is to figure out how to frame the problem, because in the end, the solution will closely follow the description of the problem. Looking at design at this high level, there are three parts, framing the problem, prototyping a solution, and oscillating between the two states of framing the problem and prototyping a solution.

I've come to understand design research as a way to learn about the world and make sense of the human experience by fashioning and fabricating tools that can probe and structure the information observed about the world. I'll use examples from my thesis to demonstrate and illuminate design research in practice.

One place a human centered designer can start is by performing ethnographic research. This can take the form of interviews, surveys, shadowing, role-playing, etc. One application of ethnographic research is to understand a community, a person, a market, an organization, corporation, etc. This type of research will reveal the community's culture, how the different individuals comprising the culture function autonomously and interactively. This process eventually reveals a problem or opportunity that can be addressed via design.

For example, I engaged with and ethnographically researched the Philadelphia technology startup community for my thesis. I began by doing interviews, which then led to discoveries of challenges and opportunities the community faces. There were two rounds of interviews for my thesis, the first was my initial probe into discovering what the community's problems, challenges, and opportunities. The three major themes discovered revolved around a lack of funding in the Philadelphia region, the need for mentors and advisers who have been entrepreneurs, and each startup's need to figure out how to gain initial traction. The second round of interviews leveraged the knowledge I had gained from the first round of interviews, and I designed a research tool to reveal the community's perspective on resource dispersion. To move my thesis forward, I had to discover where mentors and advisers were located and how they were dispersed throughout the community. Being able to visually map data that's collected in this manner has played a key role in making new connections between information that's normally not connected.

Mapping the Philadelphia Startup Community and the Relationships between different organizations
Another example is observing startups operate and function in their natural environment in order to observe the entrepreneurial culture specific to Philadelphia. To do this, I attended and observed multiple Philly Startup Weekends, observed the Philly Tech Meetup and PSL's Founder Factory, and had the opportunity to help and observe the various startups at the 2012 GoodCompany Ventures program.

Startup Weekend, Mentor Providing Advice
Doing this aided in understanding that mentors/advisers and entrepreneurs can serrendipitiously meet or have planned meetings; eventually, realizing how mentors and advisers may serendipitously interact with entrepreneurs and how mentors and advisers trust and identify each other. At this step in the process, I was finally able to frame the problem for my thesis and I could begin prototyping different solutions (Request for Mentoring, Mentoring Progress Report, and Mentoring System). Also, at this point in my thesis, my thesis began oscillating between prototyping solutions and reframing the problem as I continued to learn from the prototypes I tested.

The next phase of research for my thesis was understanding what goes on during a mentoring/advising session and what goes on before and after the mentor/adviser and entrepreneur meet face-to-face, which eventually will lead to a mentoring system that will benefit entrepreneurs, mentors/advisers, and the organizations that provide mentoring/advising.

You can explore the current draft of my thesis here.

Read the next post in this series here.

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