DESIGN RESEARCH, SOCIAL INNOVATION

Why Design Research is Important for the Arab World Now

Photo by Ravy Shaker

The political scene in the MENA region is now at the epitome of historical breakthrough, we are the generation that is experiencing a revolution like none other in our region- on a multitude of dimensions and scales. The Arab Spring has revealed to the world that this region, whose peoples have been forced to deal with ongoing political strife and social conflict for decades, is now fervently undergoing a period of massive change. What is more surprising to the world however, is that for the first time we see the Western world taking initiative from the uprisings of the Arab peoples and re-manifesting that rage towards their own political and social systems. Considering the fact that the Arab world has almost always been the ‘follower’ or recipient of  the West in almost all matters until now, this new age of global activism is creating -in many ways- a new era and understanding  of politics.

So where does design  research come in? To most designers who specialize in social innovation, the answer is obvious and the possibilities are endless. First off, as designers we consider that the implications our actions may have on people should be preferably due to participatory and bottom-up design strategies. This means that we encourage the input of the people involved in the problem being tackled, by learning from them, working with them, and designing for them the right tools that they can use to create change in their communities. It is in fact the smaller circles of change and the meme effect they have on surrounding communities that lead to change in the whole system itself. In other words, designers can perhaps help the Arab communities redefine their systems by being the link between politics and the people. By going into each home and understanding the real underlying issues they face and gathering qualitative data, culture specific and innovative solutions can be formed and implemented.

Design does not promise grandeur illusions of instant solutions that fix all social and political problems simultaneously, but it offers people the empowerment to start making small changes in their communities  and understanding the design thinking process to problem solving. Most importantly, as this understanding of design and designers is a fairly new concept, it brings with it the motivation of a new idea and the enthusiasm of young designers who believe that on some microscopic level, they are saving the world.

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MENA PROJECTS, RESEARCH METHOD, SOCIAL INNOVATION

Designing Cultural Probe Kits for Lebanese Kids

In collaboration with Toufoula, a Lebanese NGO dedicated to improving children’s quality of life, the MENA Design Research Center is currently involved in developing innovative tools for better health awareness amongst the youth in Lebanon. Following their last Dream Rooms project, Toufoula approached us with a new initiative. The aim is to promote healthier lifestyles within the young community but unlike traditional awareness campaigns, we decided to embark on a different endeavor. In order to find out how to reach today’s kids, we designed cultural probe kits that would help us dig deeper into their world and learn more about their interests and health awareness through inspirational qualitative data. Coming up with the right questions to ask is the most crucial part of the design process; we concentrated on giving the kids all the tools that could convey their thought, ideas, opinions and feelings. By introducing a camera, the child could now take a photo of a preferred object or setting, a sound recorder to explain certain emotions that might be more difficult to write down, stickers to indicate likes and dislikes, and colorfully animated postcards to be inspired and answer some personal questions about themselves. All these various multi-sensual and interactive methods allow the child to be more responsive and intuitive. This form of design research has proven to be far more effective than concrete interviews with researchers in sterile observation rooms with stalking cameras. It allows the child to feel free in his /her environment and explore his/ her world with creativity and insight. We are currently prototyping the first kit which will soon be distributed to a school in Beirut. The results will be collected and analyzed for further modification before mass production and distribution.

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QUOTES

“Qualitative research methods enable the design team to develop deep empathy for people they are designing for, to question assumptions, and to inspire new solutions.” -IDEO

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DESIGN RESEARCH

The Clash between ‘Traditional’ Research and Design Research

Most of our projects here at the MENA Design Research Center are collaborative and multidisciplinary; this means that sometimes, while working with psychologists, social scientists or education professors, we experience a typical conflict between our methods and theirs. The relatively new design research approach is unorthodox and in many cases the complete opposite of what a scientist has learned to obey as rules of research. In fact, it could be exactly this rigidity in scientific and statistical research that has lead to the birth of design research and its focus on intuitive analysis. Basically,  the main difference between the two is that traditional research depends more quantitative data (numbers, measurements, statistics…) while design research favors qualitative information (observation, sounds, images, subjective interpretations…). This methodology is not the invention of designers, in fact most of it is borrowed from ethnography; Geertz defined this multifaceted and multi-sensual concentration on the object of research as “thick description”. Moreover, relying partly on your intuition while researching is not considered wrong, because even intuition is based on an innate human logic.

“You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon”

Design research is NOT so much about how many people bought a certain product or used a service, what age group they were or whether they were male or female. It is more about  how they felt about their experiences using the product or service, where they encountered problems, and how they dealt with them. It is the various creative ways to see solutions that didn’t really fit in the ritual problem solving scenario, and it is mostly about the input of a single person that can offer more insight to the designer than all the silent accurate statistics and demographics ever could.

“So the next time someone asks you, ‘how many people did you talk to?’, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter.”

Inspired by Sam Ladner’s ‘The essence of Qualitative Research: Verstehen’, 2009

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