Designers ability as constructivist tools for qualitative research
In design research it is common to use qualitative research methods that are grounded in the sociological frame: designers learn from sociologists how to apply selected methods to collect data and then they use the collected data for their projects. This paper aims to deepen the interaction between design and qualitative methods in a research process. It was presented at Design in progress. Vision and tools for design research seminar as a result of a discussion on the peculiarity of methods and tools in design research. The study underlines the limits of prescriptive methods and through the concept of Designer sensitivity - the peculiar and characteristic viewpoint of the designer researcher - suggests a generative hybridization and adaptation of knowledge of other disciplines.
Both historical examples and recent philosophical analysis have made it clear that the world is always perceived through the ‘lenses’ of some conceptual network and that such networks and the languages in which they are embedded may provide an ineliminable tint to what we perceive. Since the 1960's it is one of the most crucial insights of epistemology and cognitive psychology that there can be no sensations unimpregnated by expectations and that the construction of any theory, whether empirically grounded or not, cannot start ex nihilo, but has to draw on already existing stocks of knowledge. The recent debate on the constructivist paradigm has stated that the researcher characteristics play an important role in the development of the research process. A constructivist perspective distinguishes between the real and the true. Still remaining realist because it assumes the existence of real worlds, the constructivist approach does not seek a single universal and lasting truth. It assumes that what we take as real, as objective knowledge and truth, is based upon our perspective. We act within and upon our realities and worlds and thus develop dialectical relations with what we do, think and feel. The constructivist approach also foster our self consciousness about what we attribute to our subjects and how, when, and why researchers portray these definition as real. Thus the research products do not constitute the reality of the respondents' reality. The viewer creates the data and ensuing analysis through interaction with the viewed. Data do not provide a window on reality. Rather, the discovered reality arises from the interactive process and its temporal, cultural and structural contexts.
The designer-researcher would confront an investigation process with a peculiar viewpoint and a specific approach that address change and development: when a qualitative research strategy is performed by a designer, how his competences and abilities impact the research process?
Glaser and Strauss coined the term theoretical sensitivity to denote the researcher's ability to distinguish relevant data. Theoretical sensitivity refers to a personal quality of the researcher. It indicates an awareness of the subtleties of meaning of data. It refers to the attribute of having insight, the ability to give meaning to data, the capacity to understand, and capability to separate the pertinent from that which isn’t.
If we are still building the appropriate paradigm for design research, the designerly ways of knowing, to reflect upon methods in design research and most of all to reinvent the underlying rationale is a way to challenge and develop our own views and assumptions on design. Design is the discipline that have to do with situations where the boundaries are uncertain and the problem is continuously evolving and changing in itself. As a consequence, the main strength of methods for design research as discussed here should not be in their contribution to quality assurance or repeatability but in their ability to create a knowledge base that can be a useful tool for the next researcher, there must be reflection by the practitioner on the work, and communication of some re-usable results from that reflection. Even more powerful is the ability to learn a method to the level where you can go beyond the method as stated. This requires understanding why the different steps in the method are performed, adapting the method to the situation at hand, and exchanging a technique prescribed by the method for another one yielding a better result. In this framework, the designer's ability to reshape, create and built up his own methods and tools emerges as one of the most powerful insight of our discipline. Methods should no longer be prescriptive procedures but flexible approaches to the practise of design and design research, a peculiar sensitivity rather than a fixed modus operandi.
In this framework the designer sensitivity emerges as a tool box to be brought from the very beginning to the end of a research process. It contains the designer sensibility to understand the frameworks he is working in, to visualise the information he has collected and to anticipate critically the future of the observed situation. It allows us to select the relevant data coping with the information overload typical of complex situations and to finalise them in a project. It consists of his ability to borrow theoretical and practical tools from other discipline and context and mix them up, to built new tools if needed. It embrace the need for communicate and translate the values of the research, from the problem setting to the results and limits; is the consciousness of the research power in addressing better changes.