Saturday, October 3, 2009

Tools for change: human-centered design research

The second session I attended on Friday morning is titled "tools for change: human-centered design research". I wasn't sure what to expect, because I haven't been working on too much consumer electronics or user products. It was truly eye-opening to learn what goes on in a completely different field.

The presenter first gave a short description of her area of expertise, which is design research. She investigates through making materials, methods, and processes. Some of the research methods she uses include: questionnaires and crowd-sourcing, observational and immersive ethnography, interviews and conversational formats, probes, prototypes and mock-ups. One important thing going into design research is to hang your values at the door! Put your pre-conceived notions aside and really listen to what the people say.

She then described a few projects that she's done using the design research methods. The first was a game targeted for girls, to persuade them to engage with computers. They studied how boys and girls behave differently, while males create social dominance by overt competition, direct measures, and status hierarchies; girls do so with covert competition, affiliation & exclusions, and status networks. Their primary learnings from this study include: 1) everything you know (or wish were true) is (likely to be) wrong, and 2) human-centered research is fundamental to design, especially design that's intended to change things.

She then presented a few projects she advised at various schools, including one that investigates why car dealers were hiding their hybrid cars in the back and not try to sell them (this was back in 2001). It turns out that the car salesmen don't understand the hybrid technology and were afraid to talk about them to the customers. The students created education material to inform, expand, and connect the hybrid car community.

The next project created a toy targeted for tweens. The key learning from this project is that for tweens, technology = comfort. If we were designing things that are comfortable for the designers instead of the target audience, it would never sell because of the difference between the generations.

There were two more projects (environmental hero, organic food marketing), but because of the time constraints, she went through them fairly quickly. The project teams followed the same research methodologies and gathered information from the target audience, be it young boys or adults who were not interested to purchase organic food for various reasons. The findings were sometimes non-intuitive, but the end products/prototypes were successful because they listened to the people who will be using the product.

After the slides, we had a brief Q&A session, here are some notes:

Q: How do we design tools/games/gadgets for girls/women for things they are normally not interested in?
A: keep in mind that women tend to be more interested in the technology when they can see the outcome. In comparison, men tend to be more interested when they know how things work.

Q: What advice do you have to come up with creative methods, and turn data collection into key insights and solutions?
A: the most important thing is to get your feet wet and get into the field!

For me, this topic is interesting in another aspect. Back in grad school when I was choosing my specialty, it was a very close call between computer architecture and user interface design (Carnegie Mellon has a great Human Computer Interaction department). I eventually chose computer architecture, but this talk gave me a glimpse into the type of work I would be doing if I went the other way. I am living vicariously through the conference! :)

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