People-centred development

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The key idea of people-centred development is that people, as ‘end-users’ or customers, should be included in making or improving products and services. There are a number of tools and techniques available that allow researchers, designers, and engineers to work with people throughout the design and development process. There are four phases – or basic steps – of the people-centred development:

  1. The first step is identification, where we define whose problems are actually being solved or who are the people in focus.
  2. In the second step, we carry out research and analyse their needs, using and combining different approaches, from the social sciences and humanities. In this way, we learn about people’s everyday experiences, practices and habits to find out what they need and want.
  3. The third step is interpretation. On the basis of research findings and in cooperation with the developers we prepare recommendations for design and development.
  4. The fourth step, design, development and testing, assures optimal user experience. In this phase, when we already have a prototype of the product or service, the central question is why and how - and if at all - the newly created solutions are relevant, important and meaningful to people.

The people-centred approach in design and development attempts to make a move from the mindset of engineers, designers and researchers to the specific needs and experiences of people. In this approach, people play an important part in the innovation, design, co-creation, and testing of solutions. The approach has been tried by numerous international companies. In the 1970s Xerox relied on a people-centred approach to improve the usability of their first photocopying machine; in the 1990s, Boeing employed ethnography to design the 787 Dreamliner aircraft, and Microsoft used it to improve their operating system. In the new millennium, several other companies, including Intel, Google, General Motors, Motorola, Nissan, and Volvo, started to hire social scientists and use people-centred approaches for the design and development of their products and services.

The Four Basic Steps

How does the people-centred approach function in practice? We divide it into four basic steps (see Figure 1). The first step is identification, where we define whose problems are actually being solved or who are the people in focus. In the second step, we carry out research and analyse their needs, using and combining different approaches, from interviews, focus groups and participant observation to surveys and experiments. In this way, we learn about people’s everyday experiences, practices and habits to find out what they need and want. In this process we do not perceive people as research subjects; instead, we treat them as colleagues and co-creators. We encourage them to creatively participate in decisions towards concrete solutions. The third step is interpretation. On the basis of research findings and in cooperation with the developers we prepare recommendations for improving the design. The key idea of people-centred design and development is that people can - and should be - included in this part of the design process as well, not only acting as informants to the researchers, but as partners in the creative process.

There are a number of tools and techniques available that allow researchers, designers, and engineers to work with people throughout the design and development process. The fourth step, design, development and testing, assures optimal user experience. In this phase, when we already have a prototype of the product or service, the central question is why and how - and if at all - the newly created solutions are relevant, important and meaningful to people. We test the prototypes with people and use different techniques to assess their suitability and overall people-friendliness. Based on the results, we prepare recommendations for improvements.

People-centred development is an iterative process, which means that we continuously return to users of products or services to repeatedly ask questions that shed light on how our solution meets their needs and desires. In addition to listening attentively, researchers observe what co-creators do and how they interact with technologies or each other, researchers might even live with research participants for a while to learn about their daily habits and practices. They use techniques that transform research participants into active co-creators or collaborators, they let them take the lead and they learn from them to find out how new solutions, products and services, co-created with the people and for the people, could improve their lives.

Mapping the Approach

A useful tool and starting point for making sense of the various cross-cutting fields of study and the practices, research approaches and methods of people-centred development is Elizabeth Sanders’ “Map of Design Research” (Sanders 2006; 2008). In her map (see Figure 2), Sanders defines existing design research types/approaches as “zones” (large circles), “clusters” (larger bubbles within zones that signify the existence and support of professional organisations), and “bubbles” (smaller, not yet supported by professional organisations). They are positioned along two dimensions. The vertical dimension is defined by approach (research-led or design-led), whereas “the research-led perspective has the longest history and has been driven by applied psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and engineers” [1] . The horizontal dimension portrays the “mindsets of those who practice and teach design research” [2] .

In continuation (see Figure 3), Sanders overlays “People-Centered Innovation” [1] on the map of design research. As is evident from Figure 3, People-centred innovation (development) leans towards the participatory model, where “users” become partners (“active co-creators”) in the design/development process. She identifies three main research types: Applied Ethnography, Participatory Design, and Lead-User Innovation.

Sanders first presented the map in 2006 as a “cognitive collage” of design research that was still taking shape [3] (Sanders 2006: 4). She subsequently altered some details [4] and invited others to work on the map from their perspectives. From our standpoint - and taking into account the literature published in the 10 years after the first publication of Sanders’ map - we might also add to this overview the more recent and expanding field of Design Anthropology, placing it at the intersection of the People-Centred Innovation and User-Centred Design zones between Expert and Participatory Mindsets, leaning towards Research-Led approaches.

Another way of mapping design research is provided by Hanington’s [5] “Model of Design Research”, as taught at Carnegie Mellon University (see Figure 4). Instead of aligning them along with the specific models of research- or design-led dimensions, this model integrates “methods and creative development through specific phases of exploratory, generative, and evaluative research and design”, whereby each phase is characterised “by approaches, while not limited by specific methods” [6] .

This model gives us a simple but efficient visual representation of a people-centred design and development process. We can see that a people-centred design project will develop through three interconnected phases, the exploratory, generative, and evaluative phase. In each phase, the design team chooses different approaches and methods to achieve set goals.

We can see that preparing for a people-centred design or development study involves analysing existing research - theoretical or applied - that has dealt in some way with the issues raised by the prospective client. This will aid the researcher to become more knowledgeable of how analogous issues and problems have been discussed. This is the first step towards reconfiguring the questions and needs of the client into ethnographic, people-centred research problems (step 2).

Traditional vs. people-centred research

How does the people-centred development research differ from “traditional” research? In the case of traditional “theoretical” research, researchers themselves often identify and define the questions that they wish to examine. This however does not take place in a vacuum, as a researcher often takes into account current circumstances, existing research concerning the proposed object of analysis as well as the feasibility of funding.

People-centred development research by definition involves studies that are commissioned and financed by a client that wishes to shed light on a specific problem or issue - be they from the private or public sector. This means that while the study is rooted in the same theoretical and methodological traditions as theoretical research, it is framed by the issues of the client. As [7] explain, conducting research in such situations is not so much about the use of new techniques and technologies but about using them in different ways.

In addition, as [8] argue, it is important to keep in mind that the relationship between researchers and funders in the case of theoretical or people-centred development research differs in a fundamental way. In the case of conventional research, the relationship between the researcher and the funding body virtually ceases upon the disbursement of funds. The researcher is required to submit interim and final reports to the funding organization, but from the moment of funding, the researcher has a great deal of latitude to conduct the study as she or he sees fit.

People-centred development research initiates communication and negotiation between the client and researcher the sorts of questions to pursue. Sometimes these needs are not necessarily clearly articulated by the client, [9] explain how their client requested that they study “the people stuff”. Communications and negotiations between clients and researchers can continue intermittently through the course of the study or project.

Exercises

How to use this map

Thinking about people-centred research and practice in terms of a map can facilitate our orientation within the vast and entangled field of people- (human) centred design and development. When you read an article, a book chapter, or a monograph on people-centred design, approaches, methods, and tools, analyse the text along the two dimensions. Is the approach more research- or design-led? Are users actively participating in product or service development, or are they informants providing information? There is no “wrong” or “right” here - as design and development researchers, we will inevitably use a number of methods within a single project. Some of these methods might require less creative involvement from the people we are working with, while other techniques will transform some of the research participants into research partners. It is true, however, that different methods or techniques yield different results and insights. In continuation, you may consider what kind of knowledge was made available by opting for a particular approach in a particular example (e.g. a text you were reading) and how that could change if the author chose a different perspective or method?

Win an argument with your sceptical boss

You can do this exercise in pairs, where one person takes the role of the manager who is not convinced that ethnography might do their company any good and the other person is the anthropologist commissioned to carry out a people-centred design and development project. Alternatively, you can do the exercise individually by writing down your responses to the eight questions/statements. If you are already starting your work on an Active8 challenge, build your arguments on that particular case. Otherwise, think of an imaginary project you might be working on.

Read [10] (NOTE: reading this text will equally benefit industry representatives and the engaged students.) While reading, think about how the individual management concerns relate to your own case study or project (real or imaginary). Try to find your own examples and lean on your own experience, rather than repeating the cases presented in the article. Use the literature you have already read to provide you with similar cases that you can use to support your arguments.

Now, respond to the statements your manager makes or questions they ask:

  1. This takes too long.
  2. This costs too much.
  3. Don’t bother. We can do this faster and cheaper with market research and focus groups.
  4. Couldn’t I just go myself and watch for a while?
  5. You can’t generalise from this.
  6. You can’t quantify this.
  7. This isn’t scientific.
  8. What kind of results can you give me?

Cases

Anna Kirah: Co-creation as a key to success

Anna Kirah, who has lived and worked in the USA and now in Norway, is one of the pioneers of the people-centred development approach. At the beginning of her career at Boeing and Microsoft, she worked primarily as a design anthropologist and studied people's habits, lifestyles and life stages. Now she is focused on the strategic processes of change in organizations and is active as a consultant in management teams. She emphasises co-creation in her work. She believes the key to success in developing products and services lies in taking into account of people who are intended to use them. They should be involved in designing new solutions at all stages of development processes – from conception to implementation.

In the 1990s Anna Kirah began her career linking anthropology, psychology and design at the Boeing company, where she was initially hired to distribute questionnaires on international flights. Boeing wanted to find out how they could improve passengers’ satisfaction and use findings from the study for the development of their new 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The main problem with the questionnaire-based survey was that the passengers were only presented with questions of interest to the company. The company centred approach meant that issues of concern to passengers were overlooked.

Anna Kirah proposed supplementing the surveys with qualitative and ethnographic methods using interviews and participant observation. She began to observe passengers and converse with them, which enabled her to hear and understand "first-hand" the sort of problems they actually face. She noticed, for example, that many people had trouble opening the overhead luggage bin since the opening levers were mounted quite high. Shorter people had to stretch, stand on seats or ask taller passengers to assist them. Such a study, in which passengers were able to present actual experiences and propose solutions to concrete problems proved to be much more relevant than only using the "measurement of satisfaction" through questionnaires and was continued by Boeing. On the basis of anthropological and people-centred approaches, which combined questionnaires and ethnography, Boeing managed to develop an airplane that is more human-friendly and convenient for passengers. 

Managing expectations

While researchers might feel their wings are being clipped when starting research for a client in an industry or business setting, managers and company staff may feel that a people-centred approach is wasting their time and money. Weget to the specifics of adjusting the research methods in Step 2, but first we look at how ethnographers working in the industry can address scepticism from their clients and co-workers? In their article, [11] tackle some of the major concerns in doing ethnography in corporate settings and propose strategies for dealing with them. We summarize some of them:

  1. “This takes too long!” Well, it can, but not necessarily. Jordan and Dalal [12] describe how their short research provided useful (and relatively inexpensive) advice for moving a call centre with a few hundred employees to a new, rural location. However, they note that it is realistic to expect that longer-lasting field research will produce deeper insights. A longer time-frame allows research to tackle systemic problems.
  2. “Don’t bother. We can do this faster and cheaper with market research and focus groups.” Jordan and Dalal [13] argue that market research and ethnography are complementary. While market research is primarily concerned with making business decisions and forecasting the size of the market, ethnography is concerned with design decisions that are based on a true understanding of users’ needs. Focus groups, brainstorming and surveys are most common when it comes to gathering opinions and attitudes, and are attractive to managers as recognised, relatively inexpensive, methods with a predictable and short timetable. Market researchers themselves have recognised the limited potential of focus groups: there is a big difference between what people say and what people do, what they think and what they feel. (And it is “not that people are deliberately deceptive but rather that memory is notoriously unreliable” [14] ) A focus group is unlikely to give managers the data they are looking for [15] .
  3. “Couldn’t I just go myself and watch for a while?” As qualitative researchers would know, ethnographic research “requires years of theoretically grounded training and practical experience and involves systematic data collection and rigorous analysis”. These things tend to be “invisible to the person casually observing an ethnographer at work” [16] . Jordan and Dalal use the following steps to show and explain the value of their expertise: choose projects where customers are in focus, ask people who understand their work or have seen its results to vouch for their quality in writing, and they try to involve managers in field visits before, during and after.
  4. “You can’t generalize from this!” The fear that the results from an ethnographic field study cannot be generalised is one of the most deep-reaching objections you will encounter from managers [17] .
  5. The basic strategy the authors use is to provide evidence that the findings apply beyond the field site e.g. their own prior experience of the phenomena of interest, doing literature triangulation, finding similar cases in the ethnographic community, or carrying out “ethnographic probes”—brief additional research.

References

  1. Sanders, Elizabeth B. N. 2008. Co-creation and the New Landscapes of Design. CoDesign 4 (1): 5-18: 13.
  2. Sanders, Elizabeth B. N. 2006. Design Research in 2006. Design Research Quarterly, 1 (1): 1-8: 5.
  3. Sanders, Elizabeth B. N. 2006. Design Research in 2006. Design Research Quarterly, 1 (1): 1-8: 4.
  4. Sanders, Elizabeth B. N. 2008. Co-creation and the New Landscapes of Design. CoDesign 4 (1): 5-18.
  5. Hanington, Bruce M. 2010. Relevant and Rigorous: Human-Centered Research and Design Education. Design Issues 26 (3): 18-26: 21.
  6. Hanington, Bruce M. 2010. Relevant and Rigorous: Human-Centered Research and Design Education. Design Issues 26 (3): 18-26: 21.
  7. Pink, Sarah, and Jennifer Morgan. 2013. Short-term Ethnography: Intense Routes to Knowing. Symbolic Interaction 36 (3): 351–361.
  8. Jordan, Brigitte, and Monique Lambert. 2009. Working in Corporate Jungles: Reflections on Ethnographic Praxis in Industry. In Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations, ed. Melissa Cefkin. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Pp. 95-133.
  9. Jordan, Brigitte, and Monique Lambert. 2009. Working in Corporate Jungles: Reflections on Ethnographic Praxis in Industry. In Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter: Reflections on Research in and of Corporations, ed. Melissa Cefkin. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books. Pp. 95-133.
  10. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24.
  11. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24.
  12. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24.
  13. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24.
  14. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24: 7.
  15. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24: 8.
  16. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24: 10.
  17. Jordan, Brigitte, and Brinda Dalal. 2006. Persuasive Encounters: Ethnography in the Corporation. Field Methods 18 (4): 1-24:7.