In between leading a new project at work and being busy with personal projects, I registered for the annual IIT Design Research Conference 2009. Events for Institute of Design are usually smaller than national conferences. I find it easier to meet new interesting people and re-connect with old friends from the school. (I serendipitously had one short conversation with Patrick Witney in the hallway). Hopping in and out of the venue during the 2-day conference, I caught the talks from the Robert Fabricant and Jon Kolko from Frog Design, Richard Saul Wurman (creator of the TED conference) and Dan Saffer from Kicker Studio.
Robert Fabricant opened the event with a thought-provoking statement that non-traditional, ethnographic design research has become a buzzword midst the innovation rush and it is due for a reset. He laid down 5 myths in design research and a survey of what he believes is the new landscape of our field. Tools and literature that anyone needs to conduct and share results from design research is now widely accessible. Prototyping tools and content distribution channel have also made concepts testing and feedback gathering extremely easy. Instead of seeing those changes as threats, Robert encourages us to make use of the newly available data and tools and let them enable us to reach deeper into user communities. Robert believes existing users, especially power users, are great partners for future innovations in products and services for whom they will serve.
Co-designing with end-users is not a new method. In has been widely practiced in Scandinavia since the 70’s. There has even been conferences in North America about participatory design since the 90’s. There was also a whole issue of “Communications of ACM” dedicated to the topic (soft-copy available online, please contact me if you want it). Like many great design practices, including end-users in design cycles requires cultural shift in organizations. While being able to connect and advocate the inclusion of end-users to project ROI seems to be the obvious things to do, I also think that designers should take the initiative and immerse themselves in user communities outside our offices. After all, many of us create solutions for consumers, why not spend a little time stepping into their world from time to time? If you design MP3 players, go into an old vinyl shop in the neighbourhood and talk to people, participate in online-forums be part of the community that we serve.