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 🙂

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ReelChanges.org, a brief account of my experience and learnings

Reelchanges.org does a lot more than merely using internet as a means of delivering information to the users. The site is originated out of the idea of supporting independent filmmakers around the globe by empowering them with means to communicate about their media proposals, to find audience, patrons and media distributors.

The team included a bunch of documentary filmmakers, journalists and technology experts. It was at this stage, quite the time when everyone was brainstorming that I joined this team as a UX consultant. Initial responsibilities included defining the design brief, gathering background information about various aspects of non- profit media production – distribution and informing the team about related design possibilities.

In parallel, started the phase of identifying different user personas with their individual needs. A set of workflows and scenarios were sketched pertaining to each user category. Somewhere I also got started with the task of breaking up and then structuring the information to come up with the system architecture.

Initial set of paper sketches as wireframes and system diagrams proved to be a handy communication tool within the team. We did run a couple of iteration cycles using these. Besides carrying the advantage of a faster turnaround time, these paper prototypes proved valuable for the team whenever it came to convey thoughts to the team members with different backgrounds, especially when most of us were accustomed to relying on text based communication. These wireframes soon became the basis for generating visual designs (high fidelity UI mock-ups) for this project. We also had points of difference around issues like usage of colors and visual language but the process followed helped us to embrace and appreciate good elements from different points of views. Moving ahead, these images were delivered for front end HTML implementation cycles which made me taste its own set of constraints 🙂

In Aug 2008, the team released the alpha version of ReelChanges.org. Since then it is kept on a content aggregation mode before we could embark on a new cycle of design enhancements. This is also a period when we are testing this idea with a live segment of users, patrons, documentary filmmakers and commercial content distributors.

Credits: Hal Plotkin, Texity Systems

Related resources: Click here to view a set of process sketches of this project.