Choosing one of ‘design research’ and ‘design’!!

A few days back I was asked an interesting question. Although personal but I believe that the answer to the question is worth sharing. Somebody asked,

“Why did you decide to get into design research and leave designing?”.

One can see that it is not just one single question. While in the first half of the question one is asking for my reasons to pursue design research. Fair enough! I have written a short essay on why one should do design research. It talks about the value proposition which design research brings into the larger picture of designing communication, products and services. I would encourage you to go through this post as well.

But in the second half of the question one is assuming that either I have left designing to pursue design research or design and design research are two mutually exclusive activities. Let me assure you that it is neither of these two cases. Neither I have quit designing after deciding to carry design research nor do I think that design research and design are mutually exclusive. Even after getting involved with design research I am actively pursuing design. There are short projects that I try to handle and accomplish. Well I know you could simply discard my answer stating that it is too personal to be taken seriously. Let me then question the assumption that if one pursues design research he/she could no longer perform as a designer. I believe this is inherently an overstated and exaggerated imagination. The whole idea that research is a scientific process, based on articulation, objectivity and measurements while design is an intuitive process, fused with creativity, doodling, and life changing thoughts, is utter bogus. In fact Creativity, Objectivity, Articulation and Understanding can exist independent of disciplines and fields. And these qualities cut across the boundaries. They are as crucial for one discipline as they are for another. Also look into the areas where design has an access to. They are also evolving. May be gone were the days when a designer would be limiting his performance to print media or to graphic arts and identity design. One could claim that design was an statement on its own, capable of transforming perceptions and identities. But listen to the contemporary voices and one can realize that design has a much larger audience, and a larger reach now. Today’s design of products, communication and services rests on extensive user’s feedback. Fields like ethnography, material science, information and computer science are crucial for imagining anything ‘next’ or extending the obvious line of thinking. Thus it seems that the design research and design are complementary activities and not mutually exclusive. And, they do so by not simply supporting each other but by chasing each other.  And off course one can do both if he/ she could manage 🙂


The Lost Sheep of ICT4D Research by Gerard C. Raiti

This article, appeared in 2007, analyzes certain shortcomings of ICT4D Research. The author senses a kind of lack of direction with in ICT4D literature and emphasizes that new models should exist beyond qualitative and quantitative analysis so as to better develop an understanding of the impact, benefits, limitations, risks, and goals of implementing ICTs in developing nations. He identifies that media studies and communication theories can play a vital role in creating ICT literature. The major concerns raised in this article includes:

1. We need multidisciplinary authors to create a multidisciplinary ICT literature.

2. It is important to realize that ICT is not a panacea; it alone can’t lead to social elevation.

3. Who is responsible for the structure of ICT4D literature?

4. Application of Habermas’s public sphere to mobile telephony in sub Saharan Africa to demonstrate how ICT4D could expand upon the theoretical tradition with in media studies.

The author refers to the work by Peter Golding and Graham Murdock (1978) to emphasize the need of new research methods. Both the scholars, along with Annabelle Sreberny (2005) and Colin Sparks (2005), are also critical of the redundancies which occur in the ICT4D literature owing to the use of similar methods yielding similar results. I’m trying to gain access to their work titled Theories of Communication and Theories of Society which currently looks a paid access. However the article seems to be based on Political Economy of Communication and Culture which I shall follow next. The later could lead to more active audience studies and ethnographic research.

One of the limitation of the ICT4D literature is its inability in measuring and quantifying the influence of ICT4D as few data existed before the conducted research but at the same time it has well documented its many successes from aiding rural farmers to increasing literacy and facilitating communal communication.


1.In 2007, the then ICT4D research was investigating areas including telecentres, technological infrastructure, telephone incumbents, VoIP, mobile telephone, digital education and the digital divide. Incumbent is probably meant here for ‘services or products’ which lean on ‘telephony’ for their realization.

2. In 2003 Warschauer in his book ‘Technology and Social Inclusion’ recognized ICT4D as a multidisciplinary field of study.

3. In 2004, Leslie Haddon wrote a book titled ‘Information and Communication Technologies in everyday life’ with an aim to introduce research on ICTs and everyday life.

4. Coming to theory, the author mentions a use of Habermas’s public sphere and diffusion theory. He discusses public sphere along with aspects of democratization and literacy. Probably this is something which I can follow further.

ICT links

MIT International Development Initiative,

ITU: UN agency for ICT

Journal Information Technologies and International Development

The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries

The Ethnos Project for securing local content

Types of arguments

International Development Research Centre

International Institute of Communication and Development

Literacy and Technology

A review of literature and research in the domain of literacy, teaching and technology is carried out by Donald J. Leu, Jr. Syracuse University. The title of the chapter is Literacy and Technology: Deictic Consequences for Literacy Education in an Information Age. It illustrates the relationship between the nature of literacy and the changes in technology. It is shown that rapid changes in technology continuously redefines the nature of literacy. Users also keep affecting this process by bringing newer envisionments of these changes.

Theoretically this relationship can be seen from two different stances- transformative and transactional. The former suggests that technology transforms the nature of literacy. From this perspective research can understand the possible forms of literacy with in the newer forms of technology like CD ROMs, Multimedia, Internet. While the later stance, transactional, suggests that the effects of changes in technology on the nature of literacy are not unidirectional, rather technology and literacy transform each other. This stance is realized when users envision different uses of technology for literate acts.

Although both of these stances are seen important as vital indicators of relationship between literacy and technology, the author puts emphasis on a third view. This view suggests that we have entered into a phase of rapid changes in the forms and functions of the literacy and it is here with in this context that changes in technology keeps redefining the nature of literacy. A linguists would thus define literacy to be deictic in this sense.

We can widen our understanding of the literacy being deictic by seeing it in its historical context. In the earlier societies literacy enabled one to keep records of land, livestock, and crops, often for taxes or for business transactions. In many religions it served to enforce a religious dogma where only a literate priest would read and interpret the religious hand written text. In post reformative Europe with the advent of printing press techniques by Johann Gutenberg, Luther and many of his protestant followers embraced literacy to seek individual salvation. One could do so by reading and interpreting religious texts at her own.

Along the same lines with ‘Jeffersonian idea of democracy’, as the author puts it, literacy became essential for anyone to be called an informed citizen. One needed to be literate in order to make wiser ballot box decisions and to be aware of political and economic happenings through newspaper and other forms of mass media production. For an industrial society, literacy became critical in terms of transmitting production and hierarchical information. Also newer tools to produce fast drafts of memos, notices and reports came into existence. Next comes the information age, post industrial for many, where literacy is an important tool in the hands of individuals and groups to access, evaluate and communicate useful information quickly and efficiently to solve problems.

The author takes this discussion further by mentioning instances where individuals and organizations have incorporated or rather adopted ‘efficient’ practices to be able to effective control information flows and sustain the competitions. Also when these entities interact with technology, which itself is changing so fast, they envision newer uses of technologies. However from a political and economic perspective, author points to studies skeptical of the intentions behind these envisionments. A group of researchers feel that literacy often supports those in power and not those out of power while another records emancipatory effects of acquiring literacy and sensible developments it results.

The author mentions that the governments and educational policy institutions from different countries are trying to understand the relationship between literacy and technology. From a research perspective there seen are the challenges about the generalizabilty of findings from earlier technologies. To quote the author verbatim,

“Mayer (1997) reminds that it s important to be cautious about generalizing findings from traditional texts to different forms of hypermedia because each technology contains different contexts and resources for constructing meanings and require somewhat different strategies for doing so. It is equally important that we must also be cautious about generalizing patterns from older digital technology to newer digital technologies… we should also be cautious about generalizing from one iteration with in a particular technology to a newer iteration where the interface, speed, and resources may differ substantially”.

The problem gets further complex when we acknowledge that individuals often create different envisionments for literacy with in each technology. One of the interesting observation made by the author tells us that work on interest and motivation aspects with in recent technologies suffers from a tendency to use limited measures of interest, sometimes with only a few items presented in a simple Likert scale. Moreover he also observes that most of this data is often collected either before or after interactions with hypermedia software but never during the actual use of the software environment.

Also referred is Hidi (1990) to emphasize on evaluating distinctions between situational interest and individual interest. The former is transitory and specific to a learning situation and is often measured after a learning experience. While the later is a result of long term experiences with a topic or a domain and is much more permanent. Individual interest is seen to have a considerable effect on the adaptability of hypermedia in teaching environments. The author also names a couple of studies carried out to evaluate individual differences and cognitive learning styles. Also mentioned is Dual coding theory of Paivio and reviews of multi-modal research by Daiute and Morse (1994). I shall follow with a discussion on the same in a separate post.

Learning from this chapter

One of the interesting ideas brought forth by the author is the ability of users to envision probable uses of technology. He brings examples from a classroom context where teachers have envisioned a different use of the technology (other than the one proposed by the technology owners). We are hopeful that we might be able to find similar examples from developing regions. Probably what is required is to collect these cases of technology envisionment by users from developing regions and then evaluate these to gain insights into this interaction.

Simultaneously we might also look into the history of technology use by the rural population. Spreading this knowledge over a time line can help us understand how people are assimilating technological changes. Moving forward in our experimentation we can also try understanding issues of generalization as put by Mayer (1997) in the chapter. For this reason we would like to follow Mayer (1997) in the days to come. Alongside we would also like to spend some time on studying multimodal theories viz. dual coding theory by Paivio.

To follow

Mayer, R. E. (1997). Multimedia learning: Are we asking the right questions? Educational Psychologist, 32, 1-19

Paivio, A. (1979). Imagery and verbal processes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Daiute, C., & Morse, F. (1994). Access to knowledge and expression: Multimedia writing tools for students with diverse needs and strengths. Journal of Special Education Technology, 12, 221-256

Becker, H. J. (1993). Computer experience, patterns of computer use, and effectiveness — An inevitable sequence or divergent national cultures? Studies in Educational Evaluation, (19), 127-148

Follow the link to the online version of the Handbook of reading research.

Why should one do design research?

The following is one amongst the top 10 essays read at International Conference on Research into Design’ 2011

Lets rephrase this question to read as “What is the value of carrying out an activity like design research?” Possibly one can then find an answer to “Why should one do design research?” For a large part of research history, research as a field seems to be dominated by natural sciences. A surge for specialization in the earlier quarter of the 20th century with the advent of industrialization also reinforced the notion of research as an activity integral and central to natural sciences. This perspective clearly demarcates a stark distinction between sciences and other human activities viz. design, art. It was believed that science and other disciplines (creative, arty or designerly) could never share a common dictionary and thus there could be no communication possible amongst them. But in the recent past, especially post 1970; there have been attempts to bridge this gap. Talking alone of design, it is realized that there could be forms of knowledge peculiar to this discipline.
As evidences to above claim, Nigel Cross (Cross, 1999) records a growth of research based journals in design over the last 10 to 15 years like Design Studies in 1979, Design Issues in 1984 and Journal of Design History in 1988. He quotes Bruce Archer’s definition of research from Design: Science: Method conference of Design Research Society in 1980, as “a systematic inquiry; the goal of which is knowledge”. While the former part of the definition might be contestable on grounds of choice of methods of performing a systematic inquiry; it is probably in the later part of this definition that we look for clues to find relevance of doing design research. We lay our emphasis on design as a discipline which can contribute a rich body of knowledge. It has always been seen as an act of creation- deliberate and conscious which asks of a designer (or anyone who gets in to an activity like designing) to think of contexts in great detail before proposing a possible solution to the problem at hand. It is thus more the process of design with all its complexity and variables than the designer or the designed solution, which is relevant. We acknowledge that we could possibly say this only in the light of design activities which cater to day-to-day shaping of human experiences and environments but not for “elite high designs” by few professionals.
We can now state reasons for doing design research. We believe that design research has the potential of establishing a conversation between different disciplines. Although still at its nascent stage but it is doing this by attempting to draw on methods and tools in use by natural sciences and other disciplines like psychology, social sciences to devise research methods of its own. This is synonymous to the discussion of “breaking the disciplinary matrix” by Kuhn; something which he regards as essential to bring a paradigm shift. May be utopian but as design researchers, we believe that interdisciplinary learning is essential for the growth of knowledge and design research can do this. On the other hand we also see a great value of design research to the development of design itself. Design, in the form of design research is learning to subject itself to a wider criticism and review and to a practice of acknowledging different sources of influence and origins. This brings a wider understanding of the context along with an ability to filter out any totalitarian or relativistic solution. We look forward to bring more insights into future discussions based on these notions of design research and its implications.
Cross, N. (1999). Design Research: A disciplined conversation. Design Issues , 5-10.