My area of deepest interest in design research combines hands on techniques with the interview process. This was the topic of the guest lecture at the University of Oregon last week.
Participatory design elicits deep insights, beyond the question/answer scenario of an interview. During an interview, a participant largely engages the left side of the brain - the thinking, reasoning, verbal, logical portion. When external stimuli are added - clay, collage materials, items to sort or items you can use to "build," the right brain engages. The creative side that works from fantasy and art and intuition begins to emerge and maybe even take over. Things that may have been difficult to articulate come out in form and participants relax into a different space.
As an exercise to understand how it feels to be a research participant (people watching you, answering numerous personal questions, feeling self-conscious) as well as a way to really walk through this process, I posed this question: "How can mobile technology support your health care?" They could respond with a particular solution or how they would like to feel when supported. They were given a worksheet and a can of Play-Doh.
After about 20 minutes, each student or group presented their thoughts. Some common topics rose quickly to the surface. For this group, generally healthy without known chronic conditions, the concept of an app or device that encourages them to live a healthy lifestyle was popular. In the photo above are 3 designs by one student, all created to be very low profile and add ons to things you already carry or use. A mile meter for your bike built into your bike light, a smart card that fits into your wallet and a thumb drive that captures your heart rate on a bike commute. Whether or not these are feasible, the inspiration or paint point for this participant was not having to carry around another thing. He wanted to add features to an existing device.
A female student created a scale out of the Play-Doh (blue) and talked a lot about the need for balance in her life. She wanted a visual - maybe an iPhone app - that showed a scale to see how she was balancing her spiritual, physical and emotional health on any given day.
Another student was interested in just seeing his food intake for any given day, hoping that would motivate him to eat healthier. (red Play-Doh)
Given more time and a more intimate setting, the exercise could have been pushed to a more personal, emotional conversation. Participants might be asked to model something that represents how they feel about their health or something that represents their biggest health worry.
However, even on this higher level topic, the information may not have played itself out as explicitly in an interview as it did here with the help of a few lumps of Play-Doh. The female may have talked about feeling overwhelmed and needing less stress, but the visual of the scales, her driving need becomes obvious. Balance. The Play-doh not only helps to trigger the right brain, but also allows the participant some time for introspection, time to think about what is really important. The "make" part of the exercise took only 20 minutes, but there was no requirement to talk, just to think and create.
Participatory Design or Engaged Design is a process I strongly believe in. It was great to be able to share its benefits with the next generation of designers.