From Big to Grand: Unlocking Excellent Research

During two whirlwind weeks of teaching People-Centred Research, Eilidh and I had the opportunity to reflect on our approach to design research, what enables powerful outcomes, and how to teach those practices. Throughout the course we aimed to teach not just the theory and framework, but really the underlying techniques that cultivate great research: strategy, time management, comfort with people, communication, adaptation, documentation, and a bit of fun.

People-centred research is an approach that supports the entire design and development process with people-centred activities. It involves people at many stages of the design process; to define opportunities, get inspiration, co-create ideas, test prototypes, and validate solutions.

Rather than force design decisions, or reveal a straight-forward path from problem to solution, people-centred research helps us discover directions that are inspired by genuine behaviours, contexts and needs.

For this course we partnered with the Sports & Leisure Division of the Copenhagen Municipality, a new division with a mandate to manage public sports facilities (swimming pools, football fields, handball gyms, etc.) and cultural areas (libraries, culture houses, etc.). The brief was to understand what role Valby Idraetspark, a huge sport park, can play for the residents of Valby and greater Copenhagen, and how it can become a melting pot for sports and culture. Our partner asked us to help them understand how to make the park go “from big to grand”.

Eilidh and I took this as a starting point for the research process as much as for the content; how could we help our students take the big, ambiguous area of people-centred research and make it grand?

An Intangible Medium

Like academicians in anthropology, a design researcher attempts first and foremost to make sense of the world (behaviours, attitudes, belief systems, etc.) and then distill this understanding into meaning.

Yet “meaning” is a big, subjective word.

There are no metrics to measure “meaning”; how do you know if what you’ve identified is ok, good, or amazing? We rely on our planning & people skills to capture the most relevant research and our analytic & communication skills to make sense of what we find. But unlike graphics, or code, or physical objects, the medium for people-centred research is intangible. We work with other people’s views and perspectives.

Honing Those Techniques

Using this intangible medium to unlock powerful meaning requires your planning, people, analytic, and communication stills to be well honed. Our goal with this course was to give the students a suite of process, tools, and confidence to really bring out the best in these skills.

The educational philosophy of CIID master’s programme is learn by doing. Without a rudder however, people-centred research can be a rocky journey — often leading to mediocre results and frustrated designers. With such an intangible medium, it can be difficult understanding what went wrong, or how to improve the processes.

Right from the start of the course, our goal was to provide a rudder of techniques for our students to take with them on their journey through the ambiguous process of people-centred research. In addition to the 280+ slides we presented throughout the course and all the share-back sessions and group check-ins, we also built in a few extras to really prepare our students. We had a lot of fun putting these exercises together; here are a few of our favorites:

Studio Expectations

We set 5 studio expectations that laid the foundation for a fast-paced, evolving process. Each team was given boards and were required to visualise their process and research on the boards, evolve their boards with their process, and frequently share back their work in progress.

  1. Make it visual
  2. Evolve your space
  3. Kill the grand reveal
  4. Timing is key
  5. Use normal language

We also expected them to manage their time well, especially when in the field conducting sessions, and to use normal language (respondents or clients don’t appreciate fancy design language — get in the habit of talking normally!).

studio-process

Improv!

I think our absolute favorite exercise of the two-weeks was an hour where the students had to try their hand at comedic improv. We challenged them to introduce themselves in different ways and create entire scenes asking only questions. Slightly unorthodox, these activities highlighted the importance of thinking of your feet and leading a conversation while constantly asking questions. It was also hilarious and a great way to kick-off the first day of the course.

improv-exercise

Live Interview Practice

Before going into the field, we gave each team four minutes to rehearse a part of their research protocol in front of the entire class. For most teams, this was the first time they were actually doing a run-through of their protocol and it was a high pressure moment. It gave the students a chance to be comfortable in uncertain situations and allowed the class to observe different approaches, methods, body language, etc. We were able to give feedback on tiny details: phrasing open-ended questions, giving more time for silence, arranging team members during a session, or even balancing both note taking and picture taking. Many thanks to our colleague Caroline who successfully acted as seven different respondents!

practice

How to Behave in an Interview

No matter how much you plan your field research, something always goes wrong. Our colleague Julia gave a really fun guest talk on her field experiences and her expert tips to make things go more smoothly. I learned a lot too: great stories about not giving Beer Nuts as a thank-you gift, making sure you’re wearing appropriate socks, having a gigantic clock app on your phone, and what to do if your respondent unexpectantly starts screaming in the kitchen. After two days of intense planning and strategy, the stories were a fun way to relax a bit before heading into the field and gave the students confidence to handle unexpected developments.

how-to-behave-in-an-interview

Post-It Clustering in Action

For the analysis process, we created a short, stop-motion animation of how to go from research findings to a design challenge. We wanted to visualise the way we at CIID use post-its for analysis and the value of clustering, and re-clustering, zooming out from your research findings to uncover trends and insights, and only then writing a design challenge.

Oscar Awards

We wrapped up the two weeks with a round of awards, our own People-Centred Research Oscars! Each team received two recognitions, one for content and one for process. It was a great way to recognise their hard work, but also a way to again highlight specific elements that really make a difference. We congratulated teams for things like great time management, expert use of media in communicating their research, excellent ideation synthesis and concept maps, beautiful boards, stepping out of their comfort zone, and even gave a recognition for a team that pulled through and overcame sickness.

Grand Outcomes

All the teams did a great job of finding strong insights and opportunities, and then building off those opportunities to create inspiring concept directions to take Valby Idrætspark from big to grand. You can take a look at their work here.

Many thanks to Signe, Lene, and Marianne from the Municipality, the excellent Education team at CIID, and all the research respondents for their input and support. We’re excited to keep partnering with the Municipality and see how these findings and concept directions help them pursue new projects and partnerships.

And for a quick, fun look at the overall course, check out one of the team’s process videos: