Design Research Framework to Transform Any Problem

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This morning I was asked if I solve problems as an architect or as a communications designer. It was a little hard to answer because the answer squarely falls into the domain of neither and both. I believe in a non-disciplinary approach design in which the methods are based on the nature of the the problem, not my own disciplinary bias. Over the last 15 years of research and practice in social sciences, design, and urban planning, I have developed a a simplified conceptual model to craft research and process in response to demands.

Illustrated above, I look at all problems as fitting somewhere within the above structure - wherein a problem might be articulated by thought and language (sign), by tangible products and interfaces (object), by spatial context (environment) or by large scale invisible systems such as formal law and culture.  Each of these domains have stakeholders, and those stakeholders each contain values, beliefs, objectives, expectations, knowledge and resources. Stakeholders are in constant communication between the material structures (images, objects etc) and their internal elements (needs, beliefs, etc). The combination of all factors is the shared human experience of the problem.

So for example, if you are attempting to solve a big problem like poverty as a non-disciplinary designer, you recognize that poverty is contextual, has stakeholders across many different kinds of contexts, artifacts, vocabularies and images that are used to communicate the idea of poverty within these domains. . According to individual psychologies, stakeholders will engage and respond to these external elements in various ways. Stakeholders will be influenced in every given set of conditions by each other and by an ecology of objects, language, and representation. In contrast, if a problem is very well defined, like increasing the efficiency of toaster, the user-object-context relationships are far more discrete.

At Carnegie Mellon University, I was introduced to Richard Buchanon's theory on the Four Orders of Design, which was very similar to my own model, but we maintain very different objectives and I found his model is harder to operationalize.  There are additional models out there (like Golsby-Smiths) and while I find it validating and interesting to look at their models, my own approach emerged from the field. It is not informed by these other works, I point them out merely because they exist, and I find these other frameworks are missing a critical component: the people.

Within my framework, the most important characteristic is the recognition of dispositions held by people who occupy each conceptual frame. Without people - there is no framework.  There are no objects or contexts without people - there is also no design or strategy - people are the scaffolding of everything.  Consequently, I do not consider this framework as universal, but is thus far, a model that has arisen organically through various design interactions with people, technologies, and spaces.

Yet people are highly complex. I cannot manage to engage all people in every project on every level, and therefore I have created over the years a simple heuristic to note critical attributes of people within a project which will determine the project outcome.  All stakeholders in a project have, want, or lack resources (for their interest or mine), they likewise all hold a unique vision for their lives and the project outcome, along with specific objectives, beliefs, expectations, and baggage from prior experiences. I cannot juggle all these balls for every person at one time, but I do attempt to draft the organizational structure between different actors, their unique attributes, and the conditions of the problem.

The Difference of Design in Organizations
Lets imagine an international company hires you with a big problem phrased as a simple request, "how do we become the leader in our industry?"  When companies have approached me before, they have already conducted many of the preliminary SWOT assessments and strategy planning sessions. Perhaps they have utilized a more traditional business management strategy, but found the problem too sprawling to meet the discrete demands... for example, it is impossible to identify and validate appropriate benchmarks if the problem itself is poorly defined. Driven by market research, they believe they should offer the same technologies or assets as their competitors. Yet it makes no logical sense to mirror competitor if you want to be the industry leader. It is important to do something new - but what and how?\

Using the Framework to Generate the Big Picture
I will work at all levels of the framework. In the case of robotics, I will take this problem and build a detailed understanding of their robots (the object).  I will look at all documentation, branding, communications, and language used in relation to their robots (sign). I will go into the factories where the robots are used and spend time understanding the relationship between the robots, the users, and the physical Environment. I will also look at sales trends, labor laws, social movements, international trade agreements, and latent technology trends (perhaps also concerning language, objects, environments) to capture a big picture understanding of the robots in relation to some invisible systems that shape the future of the company.

Digging Deep into the Social Terrain
In this process, however, I have left out the most important component: the people.  Who is talking about the robots? Who is listening? Where are they? When customers purchase the robots, what are they saying? How do they represent their needs?  In the environmental context, who works with the robots and how?  How do those people exchange information about the robot in that context?  More importantly, how does the robot relate (or not) to the resources, objectives, histories and so on, of every person at every level?  If I go to the capital and talk to the people shaping policies that inform the outcome of robotics markets - congressmen and lobbyists for example - what can I learn from them?

Insight by Emergence
Working through this framework to understand the problem is only the first step. Yet the more I can build knowledge at each level of interaction, the more flexibility I have to craft and test interventions. Perhaps the corporate strategy is something simple like a branding campaign or promoting a national policy - yet perhaps it also requires manipulation to the technology to better facilitate how other companies train their employees? If that is the case, what language should be used and by what device should it be communicated? By means of this approach, the key insights and opportunities will emerge and do not need to be invented - nor can they be predicted.

Impact by Design
The final outcome of such a problem will rarely consist of one single action.  Rather, it will require many small interventions choreographed across the system.  Some interventions are more important than others. To describe this processes deserves more attention than I can provide right now, yet with this framework, one is equipped to better understand any kind of problem to get going in the right direction by doing the following:

  1. Get away from the tunnel vision of a personal discipline or expertise

  2. Build an integrated and fluid systems understanding of a problem 

  3. Identify many points of intervention across scale/scope and points of view

  4. Leverage the most powerful yet high-risk asset of any problem, the people.

  5. Uncover new opportunities for exploration and testing