Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, October 19, 2007

Design Research: From Market-Driven Era To User Centered Innovation

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Design research is the avant-post through which in-depth analysis, questioning and experimentation gives way to new practices and effective new design methodologies. Design practitioner, researcher and innovator Liz Sanders has taken the time to take a snapshot at the state of design research around the world and to provide some insightful questions about where you should be heading next.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Sanders

Have you ever heard about design bubbles, cognitive maps, probes, contextual inquiries, generative tools and participatory design?

Newer design disciplines such as service design and transformation design are emerging but how do they relate in complement the existing ones?

If you are interested in finding out more about the status of design research around the world, the trends, the research areas, the new approaches and methodologies used, Liz Sanders' comprehensive analysis provides valuable insight into where design research is heading and what may be relevant to you as a visual communicator in anticipating wide trends and usable ideas.

Intro by Robin Good


Design Research in 2006

by Elizabeth B. - N. Sanders

Design is in the middle of a great transformation, and the members of The Design Research Society represent over 36 countries, so I am starting this worldwide conversation by presenting a scaffold for thinking and talking about the state of design research today.

Where Are We and What Can We See?

Image credit: chicagoist

We are in the middle of massive change.

'It's not about the world of design. It's about the design of the world'. (Mau et al., 2005).

The market-driven era is finally giving way to the people centered era. What this means for design and design research is that:

  • people who are not educated in design are designing;
  • the line between product and service is no longer clear;
  • the boundaries between the design disciplines are blurring;
  • the action now is in the fuzzy front end of the design development process with a focus on experiential rather than physical or material concerns;
  • the action in the fuzzy front end is all about new ways to understand and to empathize with the needs and dreams of people.

So this is an exciting and a confusing time for design research. The excitement comes partly from the significant recent interest of the business community in the value of design research and design thinking. The excitement is particularly evident in the fuzzy front end of the design development process.

The buzz words being thrown around today include co-creation, innovation, Web 2.0, empathic thinking, human-centered, people-centered, user-generated and so on. Exactly what co-creation is and how it is to be done is generating a fair amount of the confusion. The various forms of applied ethnography are getting more than their share of attention and the 'experts' are defending their territories from those without appropriate pedigrees.

Furthermore, researchers and designers are getting into each other's domains and misinterpreting or misapplying the other's methods and tools for design research.

There is a big disconnect between the US and Europe with regard to design research in practice. In Europe, the academics have been leading in defining the new areas of design research. And since there is a tradition of sharing and disseminating knowledge and new ideas in academia, in Europe, the new ideas in design research are spreading in a positive way.

In the US, on the other hand, it is the practitioners who have been leading with regard to design research in practice. So in the U.S., there is exploration and innovation in design research going on, but it is not as well disseminated. It is discussed in general terms so as not to give too much away to 'the competition'. It is not often published, though the interaction design community is doing a good job of sharing.

Europe is way ahead of the US in design research of a participatory nature.


Because they (particularly northern Europe) have embraced a participatory attitude for a long time. The participatory way of thinking is antithetical to the US-centric mode of manufacturers pushing products at 'consumers' through marketing and advertising. New design research tools and methods are being explored and used across all the design domains but they are being integrated at different rates.

Interaction design is in the lead, followed by industrial design, then space design and visual communications. Architecture is last but interest is growing even here.

Healthcare organizations are now demanding human-centered design thinking and architectural firms are scrambling to figure out exactly what that really means.

A Cognitive Collage

Photo credit: Leonhard Lapin

In order to write about the state of design research in 2006, I needed first to make a map so I could see what I was talking about. The idea was to view the design research space as a landscape and to give it a visual representation borrowing from the elements of the maps that we have in our minds (i.e., cognitive maps) to find our way around places.

Kevin Lynch (1960) identified the key elements of cognitive maps as being landmarks, nodes, paths, districts and edges.

Through a fortuitous Google search to see what was new in the cognitive mapping domain, I discovered Barbara Tversky's work on visual representations of environmental spaces and learned of her concept of cognitive collages.

In many instances, especially for environments not known in detail, the information relevant to memory or judgment may be in different forms, some of them not map-like at all. Some of the information may be systematically distorted as well.

It is unlikely that the pieces of information can or will be organized into a single, coherent map-like cognitive structure. In these cases, rather than resembling maps, people's internal representations seem to be more like collages. Collages are thematic overlays of multimedia from different points of view. They lack the coherence of maps, but do contain figures, partial information and differing perspectives. (Tversky, 1993)

So I present a cognitive collage of the design research space as it is in 2006. The collage is not fully detailed, and that is deliberate. My hope is that it will serve as a scaffold to support our conversation and to spark future thinking and doing. It is a collage that is still taking shape. I invite you to contribute additional dimensions, layers, zones, clusters and bubbles.

When you make your contribution to the collective collage, it will be helpful if you describe where you stand and what you see from there. Perhaps we can also identify landmarks and edges in the future, establishing a cognitive map out of the collage.

Three Perspectives

Image credit: M.C. Escher

Mental representations of environmental spaces can be viewed in any of three different ways (Tversky, 2004).

I propose that the same is true for the cognitive collage of the space of design research.

  1. A survey perspective - with this perspective you can look at and describe the entire space as though you were at a stationary point far above it, able to see everything at once. The collage above is a survey perspective.
  2. A route perspective - here you are moving along inside the space and are able to see and describe it from your changing point of view much as a traveler through the environment.
  3. A gaze perspective - in this case, you are looking at and describing the space from a single unchanging point of view. In a physical space, this would be like standing in a doorway and describing what you can see from there. In the design research world, this could be what the practitioner sees when looking from their unique position in the marketplace or what the academician sees when looking from a disciplinary/departmental point of view.

Two Dimensions

Photo credit:

The space is defined by two dimensions.

The vertical dimension describes the impetus of the design research approaches. The top half (i.e., design-led) contains design research methods and tools that have been introduced into practice from a design perspective. The lower half (i.e.,research-led) contains design research methods and tools that have been introduced into practice from a research perspective.

It is easy to see that in 2006 the lower half of the space is more densely populated than the top half. So, to date, design research has been influenced more by researchers than by designers. But this is changing rapidly.

The horizontal dimension describes the mindsets of those who practice and teach design research. It is a bipolar dimension. In fact, you can think of the right and the left sides of the space as two distinct cultures of design research. The left side exemplifies the expert mindset. At the bottom of the left side, the researcher is the expert. Researchers talk about the people that they do research on as subjects, or informers or users.

The people are asked questions and/or requested to respond to certain stimuli and/or observed. At the top of the left side, the designer is the expert who creates things to probe or provoke response from the people who are often referred to as the audience. The designers might also create things to provoke and/or communicate with other expert designers. The expert mindset is all about designing for people using specialized skills and expertise.
The right side exemplifies the participatory mindset. On this side, the researchers or designers invite the people who will benefit from design into the design process as partners. The participatory designers and researchers respect the expertise of the people and view them as co-creators in the process. The participatory mindset is about designing with people.

It is not always easy for people to cross the border between the expert and the participatory mindsets. The move from expert to participatory is particularly difficult since it causes one to reconsider who really is the expert when it comes to designing for the future (Sanders, 2001).

However, in the future, we will need to learn to work in both cultures as each has relevance for improving the human condition.

Zones, clusters and bubbles

Photo credit: Elizabeth Sanders

The design research space is described by zones, clusters and bubbles. There are four zones of activity that are shown in the background as large, light colored areas. Inside the zones are clusters and bubbles of activity.

The clusters are larger than the bubbles. For example, usercentered design is a large zone. Inside of it are three clusters (human factors/ergonomics, applied ethnography and usability testing) and two bubbles (contextual inquiry and lead-user innovation).

The user-centered design zone in the lower left hand corner is the largest and most densely populated of the zones. It is research-led and the expert mindset defines the people as the objects of study.

The three clusters of activity in this zone emanate primarily from the applied social and behavioral sciences and/or from engineering:

There is some overlap (of people, methods, tools, etc.) between the >human factors/ergonomics cluster and the usability testing cluster, but the applied ethnographers see themselves as being quite different from the others. Most of the people who practice and/or teach in the user-centered zone were educated as researchers, not as designers. There are also two bubbles of activity within the usercentered zone: contextual inquiry and lead-user innovation. Bubbles are smaller than clusters because they are not yet supported by professional organizations.

Contextual inquiry (Beyer and Holtzblatt, 1997) is most often used in the software development process. Contextual inquiry is a user-centered design method...that happens up-front in the software development lifecycle. It calls for one-on-one discussion sessions wherein users' daily routines or processes are discovered so that a product or website can be best designed to either work with the processes or help shorten or eliminate them altogether. Contextual inquiry comprises preparation, evaluation, analysis, and design phases.

It is interesting to note that the contextual inquiry bubble has been migrating toward the participatory/designer led corner of the design research space in the last few years as design-led methods such as visioning and storyboarding have been added to the contextual design protocol. (Holtzblatt, K. and Beyer, H.R., 2006).

Lead-user innovation (von Hippel, 1988 and 2005) is a bubble that sits on the very small overlap between the user-centered design and the participatory design zones.

User innovation refers to innovations developed by consumers and end users, rather than manufacturers.... In 1986 Eric von Hippel introduced the lead user method that can be used to systematically learn about user innovation in order to apply it in new product development. (Retrieved from innovation)

Von Hippel's approach is participatory in principle (i.e.,including the recipients of design in the design development process), but it is based upon the assumption that only a specific type of user is capable of participating. Von Hippel's 'lead-users' are those few who are already innovating in the domain. Thus, the lead-user innovation approach actually sits more comfortably in the user-centered zone with its focus on the 'experts' among the users.

Lead-user innovation is the low-hanging fruit of the participatory design zone. It is very effective for highly specialized domains of expertise, but it is not able to address the needs and dreams of the large number of 'everyday' people.

That is the domain of the participatory design zone. The participatory design zone covers the entire right hand side of the collage. Participatory design is an approach to design that attempts to actively involve the people who are being served through design in the process to help ensure that the designed product/service meets their needs. Its origins are generally traced back to work done with trade unions in several Scandinavian countries in the 1960s and 1970s.

Participatory design attempts to involve the actual 'users' throughout the design development process to the extent that this is possible.

A key characteristic of the participatory design zone is the use of physical artifacts as thinking tools throughout the participatory design process. This is a key characteristic of the various participatory design practices emanating from the research-led Scandinavian tradition (e.g., Greenbaum and Kyng, 1991).

Generative tools (Sanders, 2000; Sleeswijk Visser, Stappers, van der Lugt and Sanders, 2005) is a newer design-led bubble in the participatory design zone. It is characterized by the use of design thinking by all the stakeholders very early in the fuzzy front end of the design development process.

The name 'generative tools' refers to the creation of a shared design language that designers/researchers and the stakeholders use to communicate visually and directly with each other. The design language is generative in the sense that with it, people can express an infinite number of ideas (e.g., dreams, insights, opportunities, etc.) through a limited set of stimulus items.

Thus, the generative tools approach is a way to fill the fuzzy front end with the ideas, dreams and insights of the people who are to be served through design. The generative tools approach has been used across all the design domains, although the generative toolkits differ across the various domains. It should be noted that generative design research is not entirely design-led.

Generative toolkits are created and developed based on a solid understanding of the context of use that has been ethnographically informed. The critical design zone has emerged recently in the top left corner. It is design-led, with the designer in the role of the expert. The emergence of this zone can, in fact, be interpreted as a reaction against the large user-centered zone with its overwhelming focus on usability and utility (Dunne, 2005).

Critical design is best understood in the words of its originators.

Design can be described as falling into two very broad categories:

a) affirmative design and

b) critical design.

The former reinforces how things are now; it conforms to the cultural, social, technical and economic expectation.

"Most design falls into this category.

The latter rejects how things are now as being the only possibility, it provides a critique of the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values....

...critical design, or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or find answers.

(Dunne and Raby, 2001, p. 58).

Probes (Gaver, Dunne and Pacenti, 1999) is a bubble in the critical design zone.

Probes are ambiguous stimuli that designers send to people who then respond to them, providing insights for the design process. No attempt is made to understand or to empathize with the people probed; the objective is design inspiration.

There has been some confusion between probes and generative tools. Both bubbles are relatively new and are situated in the design-led part of the design space, but they are in opposite corners. The materials used in probes research and in the generative tools approach can be quite similar, for example, disposable cameras with instructions for use, diaries, daily activity logs, open-ended postcards to write, etc.

The differences between probes and generative tools lies in the research methods and goals and in the mindsets of the designers/researchers, not in the actual materials. In the probes bubble, these materials are sent (usually by mail) to people who fill them out and send them back.

The designers who receive the probes do not meet the respondents and do not get a chance to hear what they were thinking when they filled out the probes. The returned probes serve only to inspire the designer's work.

In the generative tools bubble, these kinds of materials are sent (usually by mail) to people who fill them out and then bring the completed materials with them to a participatory session where they will use generative tools. The 'probes' in this case serve two purposes: first, as 'primes' to prepare people for the upcoming creative session and secondly, as background information (and inspiration) for the design/research team.

There is an opportunity in the generative session for the respondents to explain, for example, where they took the photos, who is in the photos, why they took the photos, what the photos mean, etc. There is direct communication between the designers/researcher and the people. Primes are the first step in the process of immersion that is used to ensure that people can imagine and express their ideas for the future using the generative tools. (Sleewijk Visser, Stappers, van der Lugt and Sanders, 2005).

There is a smaller empathic design zone emerging centrally, drawing eclectically from all the other areas of the design research space. In a few years it has amassed a large and enthusiastic global following with several conference conferences being given regularly. For example, the first conference on Design and Emotion took place in 1999 in the Netherlands and has been held every two years since then. The first International Conference on Affective Human factors was held in 2001. And Symposia at the 1997 and the 2000 International Ergonomics Association have explored the area of affective needs in the design and development of products and services.

Looking Back

Image credit: Jacojvr

The cognitive collage of the design research space in 2006 is a survey perspective that comes from the many routes I have taken (and continue to take) inside the design research space. Your perspective may be different. I have played in all areas of the collage and across all the design disciplines - industrial, visual communication, interior space, architecture, interaction design, and service design. I have direct experience in all the varieties of user-centered design, participatory design and empathic design.

But I have only played vicariously in the critical design zone, through reaing and through advising graduate students (e.g., Mattelmaki, T., 2006; Stehlik, A., 2006).

In 1992 I proposed that 'products' in the future must be simultaneously useful, usable and desirable in order to be successful in the lives of people (Sanders, 1992).

How far have we come in addressing the challenge of usefulness, usability and desirability?

  • We are doing fairly well with understanding and delivering on usability.
  • We have just started to understand what desirability means and how to deliver on it.
  • We know the least about usefulness. And it is here that we have the most to gain.

I believe that the recent attention in the business press about user-centered innovation is actually about usefulness. In the years between 1999 and 2001 we saw a lot of innovation that was not relevant, not people-centered and ultimately not useful, e.g., the many failed products and services of the dot-com era. It was not sustainable in the long view.

What we hear people talking about today is the search for truly people-centered innovation. People-centered innovation takes a long view in time across a large space.

Looking Ahead

Photo credit: Gino Fabiani

The newer design disciplines such as service design and transformation design (Burns et al, 2006) are positioning themselves near the middle of the design research collage in order to draw upon tools and methods from all the zones, clusters and bubbles. But they tend to settle to one side or the other, with service design holding more to the expert mindset and transformation design reaching toward the participatory design zone.

So the cognitive collage helps to puts some things in perspective but raises even more questions for the future:

  • Are there other dimensions to this space that are essential for understanding the future of human-centered design/people-centered innovation?
  • What is the cognitive map that will emerge from this collage? Is the time right to construct it collaboratively?
  • What and where are the landmarks? Are they people, groups, tools, techniques, papers, conferences, companies, and/or blogs? Maybe there are many layers of landscape to consider.
  • How do we give our students experience in navigating this landscape?
  • Who are these students?
  • How can we teach them to see and to use the whole map and to recognize when and how to change perspectives?
  • Will there need to be a rethinking of how design and design research are shared, taught, and learned?
  • Will there be less of a need for advertising and marketing as we come to better understand participatory culture and the essence of human-centered usefulness?

These are exciting things to think about!


Beyer, H., and Holtzblatt, K. (1997) Contextual Design : A Customer-Centered Approach to Systems Designs, 1997, Morgan Kaufman Publishers.

Burns, C., Cottam, H. Vanstone, C. and Winhall, J. (2006) Transformation Design. RED Paper 02. UK Design Council.

Dunne, A. (2005) Hertzian Tales: Electronic Products, Aesthetic Experience and Critical Design. The MIT Press, London.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2001) Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects, Basel, Boston.

Gaver, W., Dunne, A. and Pacenti, E. (1999) Cultural Probes. Interactions, Vol. 6 (1), pp.21-29.

Greenbaum, J. and Kyng, M. (Eds.) (1991) Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems, LEA, Hillsdale, New Jersey.

Holtzblatt, K. and Beyer, H.R. (2006) Contextual Design at SAP.
Koskinen, I., Battarbee, K. & Mattelmäki. T. Empathic Design: User Experience in Product Design, IT Press, Helsinki.

Leonard, D and Rayport, J.F. (1997) Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design. Boston: Harvard Business Review Nov-Dec.

Lynch, K. (1960) The Image of the City, The MIT Press, London.

Mattelmaki, Tuuli (2006) Design Probes, a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

Mau, B., Leonard, J. and the Institute Without Boundaries (2004) Massive Change, Phaidon Press Limited, London.

Sanders, E.B.-N. (1992) Converging Perspectives: Product Development for the 1990's. Design Management Journal. Fall.

Sanders, E.B.-N. (2000) Generative Tools for Co-designing. In Collaborative Design. Scrivener, Ball, Woodcock (Eds.) Springer Verlag, London.

Sanders, E.B.-N. (2001) Virtuosos of the Experience Domain. In Proceedings of the 2001 IDSA Education Conference.

Sleeswijk Visser, F., Stappers, P.J., van der Lugt, R. and Sanders, E.B.-N. (2005). Contextmapping: Experiences from Practice, CoDesign 1(2), pp. 119-149.

Stehlik, A. (2006) Separating the Means and Ends of Critical Design: Seven Attempts for Conclusive Results, MFA Thesis, Department of Industrial, Interior Space and Visual Communication Design, The Ohio State University.

Tversky, B. (1993) Cognitive maps, cognitive collages, and spatial mental models.
In A. Frank & I. Campari (Eds.), Spatial information theory (pp. 14-24). Berlin:Springer.

Tversky, B. (2004) Narratives of Space, Time and Life. Mind and Language, Vol. 19, No. 4, September, pp. 380-392.

von Hippel, E. (1988) The Sources of Innovation. Oxford University Press, New York.

von Hippel, E. (2005) Democratizing Innovation, MIT Press, London.

Original article by Elizabeth Sanders on September 2006 as "Design Research in 2006". In Design Research Quarterly - N.1.

About the author

Liz Sanders is a pioneer in the use of participatory research methods for the design of products, systems, services and spaces. She divides her time between teaching and practice. Liz teaches human-centered design to students, clients and colleagues around the world.

She has an Honorary Professorship in the School of Design at the University of Dundee and serves as an Advisory Board Member for the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. Liz teaches the required design research courses to all the design students at The Ohio State University.

Liz is the founder of MakeTools, a company that explores generative tools for collective creativity.

Liz Sanders -
Reference: MakeTools [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2007-10-24 15:56:24

Liz Sanders

Hi Michael,

You are reading the dimensions correctly. I have also referred to them as

2007-10-24 09:34:20

Michael Zuschlag

Very eye-opening. Just one minor labeling convention from someone from the lower left corner of the collage (so maybe I’m not getting the dimensions). It seems to me the _whole box_ is “research-led” design, in the sense that all the techniques and disciplines within concern using information provided by users to produce a design (i.e., design research). So labeling the vertical dimension “Research-led vs. Design-led” might confuse some. It seems to me the key difference is the top end of dimension is uses research results as a source of creative inspiration for new designs, while the bottom uses research results as a set of hard data to systematically analyze a design. So maybe the labels should be Inspirational - Analytical? The top uses research to come up with ideas the bottom uses research to evaluate those ideas. Formidable is a design team that is trained in both.

posted by Robin Good on Friday, October 19 2007, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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