Effective Toolmaking: Shifting the Mindset Away from that of “Expert”

By | April 7, 2021

The beauty of struggling with words and concepts in order to best articulate them in a manner that reflects one’s lived experience in practice is that one remains true to one’s search for songs of magic regardless of the themes of introspection. This realization has freed me from various self imposed constraints on my use of blogging as a particularly flexible sensemaking tool, one that’s not only easily referenceable through personalized tagging (Dinosaur?) but also categorizable and archiveable for maximum ease of retrieval.

If I must struggle through the worst periods of my doctoral studies – the agonizing process of converting the fieldwork data into well framed peer reviewable articles that meet my supervising professor’s standards of quality – then why not indulge myself here on the blog whilst I do it? And, because I’d flounced off in a snit last week – can one flame war oneself btw? – I felt bereft of a mental playground where I could build and break and try again with the words that are my Lego bricks. So here I am back with a titanium strength excuse to hang around online without derailing my own objectives.

Sanders E-B (2006). Design research in 2006. Design Research Quarterly 1, No. 1, Design Research Society, September 2006

Today is a paean to Elizabeth Sanders’ comparative visual mapping of design research based on a simple 2×2 matrix that distinguishes between the Expert mindset, and the Participatory mindset where the end users of the putative design solution are considered partners in the research that tends to initiate human centered development of the discipline’s outcomes. Simple but powerful visualization that allows us to contrast and compare entire disciplines in design approaches – a sensemaking tool par excellence whose existence makes sense of complexity in its very simplicity. Maeda’s old blog would be proud. This sort of thing rarely happens overnight and usually takes decades of experience before one can craft a tool such as this. Last year’s challenges were met by going back to her original work, and starting from there.

Elsewhere I have laid out in full the background rationale for the need to look for more participatory approaches than those offered by traditional user centered design methodology. Here, I want to ponder the implications, from the practitioner’s perspective, of giving up one’s role as the Expert. Because Sander’s map is a static snapshot of the wide range of disciplinary approaches that fall under the umbrella of design (or Design as we used to tease it back in the day) and doesn’t actually consider the dynamics of leapfrogging from one quadrant of the matrix to another virtually overnight i.e. from one project to the very next.

Due to the nature of my professional practice over the past 15 years, I would have no choice but to say that I had to be positioned almost at the extremity of the horizontal axis of Mindset – often, I was the only ‘expert’ in the room when it came to qualitative user research for design teams, for innovation, for a plethora of applications from business model challenges among rural farmers to mesh wifi adoption in peri-urban African tier 2 towns. Unlike the luxury of the majority of my esteemed colleagues (yes, I’ve learnt some things already in academia) who work in colourful temperature controlled work spaces equipped with white boards and markers and carpets and coffee machines, I’ve more often than not found myself isolated amongst wonderful people with no conception of any of the above requirements for design teams and workshopping and brainstorming etc much less any exposure to the field of design and its attendant creative means and needs.

Unexpected treats in fieldwork. Photo by client, the irascible Dutch cofounder of a small solar kits startup, June 2012

This more often than not put me in the default position of Expert in human centered design methodology, and in practice for client companies especially startups and social enterprises, often the only person in the room with not only the knowledge of the role and importance of design research insights but also the only one able to conduct said research; synthesize data analysis; arrive at insights and facilitate design conceptualization or work on one’s own; AND goddamn write the whole thing up in a nice looking report without the support of umpteen graphic designers and multimedia visualizers.

Playing around with the human centered design process, its methods and tools, was not fun and games in the sunshine even if I did catch a glimpse of a giraffe or zebra on the side of the road. It was hard work that paid peanuts because I wasn’t in some shiny office in some innovation hotspot but working with cash strapped entities who were driven to understand the people they wanted to somehow help improve the quality of life, and livelihoods. I took the longer, harder, hungrier path by staying fiercely committed to the emerging landscape of the user environment developed by my evolving layers of understanding through conducting research for a wide variety of project needs and clients over more than a decade of fieldwork in challenging and complex contexts and conditions.

I consciously made the trade off between intellectual independence and commitment to research integrity and the well padded funding far more easier available to entities churning out palatable reports supporting their donor’s needs. Few and far between, the ones who sought me out for my insights and body of existing work on which I built their specific research projects on, drawing upon direct and indirect insights, tend to more often than not remain friends and repeat the obdurate experience of my refusal to tell them what they wanted to hear about their dream product design.

Now, here I am, one full year into the mega shift I made after 13 years of professional practice and umpteen fieldwork projects in numerous countries spanning three continents, contemplating what does it all mean? Let’s start with what relocating from one end of the continuum of Expert mindset to the other means, in the context of Sanders’ position map above. I have changed my entire approach to practice by changing disciplines.

I’ve learnt to embrace – wholeheartedly – what the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design means in terms of democratization of design’s principles in a manner that best suits the needs and contexts of workers in terms of their own operating environment.

And, most liberating, I’ve had to devolve agency to not only my design research facilitation team on the ground, far away on a different continent, but also think deeply about design of the activities for the participants themselves that centered their own agency as users of their own developed solutions and plans.

This required a huge cognitive shift in the way I thought about the tools and methods I’d already adapted from the user centered designer’s toolkit for contextual application in the rural and informal economy. I found I had to drill down to first principles of each tool or method or framework that I sought to introduce via the facilitators to the participant groups in order for them to not only grasp it rapidly but understand them well enough to convey them effectively to participants in another language, one not designed for design innovation jargon. I learnt to design research plans from the perspective of not being present as I was accustomed to being.

As I said to my team, what happens if I take myself out of the equation?

A year and a half in academia has taught me that even the questions that first come to mind right now are not possible to frame or write out, without more literature review. That will be my next post. I’ll start with looking at the topic of sensemaking, and design and development of sensemaking tools, ones that can take on a life of their own just like Sanders’ 2×2 above did.

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