Phenomenology as an epistemological resource in design research

Claire Florence Weizenegger
9 min readMar 24, 2022

Overview

We encounter design in our daily life whenever we see, read things or use objects, whereby design influences our behavior, routines, and habits. Hence, design research plays a crucial role in understanding everyday life. Design research methods and tools are primarily bounded in ethnography which focuses on people‘s needs, motivation, and fears. However, these practices offer limited insights, as they neglect the meaning of the individuals‘ experiences in everyday life. Philosophy on the other hand, offer possibilites to bridge this gap. Phenomenology, considered the proper foundation of all philosophy and is the study of the human lived experience of reality. A phenomenological research approach entails a rigorous explanation and description of the individual‘s meaning of everyday life. Thus, there is direct relevance to design. Whereas phenomenology is successfully used in other disciplines like health and social sciences it is not yet often used in design. Reflecting on strategies from phenomenological research practices and design, this article suggests ways in which design can benefit from a phenomenological perspective in the problem framing process as well as prototype testing. As designers, we have to move beyond current practices and anchor the participant‘s experience to the object we design. Eventually, I argue to advance contemporary design research and ground it in this philosophical approach that respects people as unique skillful beings in a complex social world.

Introduction

Phenomenology is a philosophical discipline, movement, and form of qualitative research that focuses on studying an individual‘s lived experiences within the real world (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2021). Whereas phenomenology is successfully used in other disciplines such as health and social sciences to learn from the experiences of others, it is not yet used often in design. In health research, for example, phenomenology is used to understand better the decision-making process‘s experience for donors of a liver transplant. This epistemic knowledge is important to better design services, products that genuinely assist the people affected by liver donations.

Until today, design research mostly focuses on ethnographic tools and people‘s needs, motivations, opinions, and fears (Kumar, 2013). This approach offers limited value from a phenomenological stance as they neglect the people‘s uniqueness and their embodied reality attuned to the open and dynamic character of situated context (Stienstra, 2015). Moreover, phenomenological research has direct relevance to design since the artifacts, tools, and technologies that we make affect how we experience our surroundings, which is what phenomenology studies (Fig. 1).

Figure 01: Mind-Object Relation

In light of this, phenomenology can help designers to understand the meaning of people‘s lived experiences. This can be a powerful tool to frame a problem without being misled on the designer‘s biases or assumptions. Hence, I argue that phenomenology as a mode of inquiry can offer valuable insights to design better tangible or intangible artifacts.

The breakdown of phenomenology

Phenomenology is understood as a disciplinary field in philosophy and movement in the history of philosophy. It can be described as the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view (Engelland, 2020). The literal translation of the word phenomenology is the study of „phenomena“ which refers to the appearance of things and immediate object of awareness within an experience. It refers to ways we experience things and thus ties back to the meanings things have in an individual‘s experience (Smith, 2003).

Phenomenology as a discipline is distinct from but related to other key fields of philosophy (Bird, 2010):

The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre. Within that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was viewed as the proper foundation of all philosophy — as opposed to ethics, metaphysics, or epistemology (Smith, 2003).

Husserl, considered the founder of the phenomenological movement, insisted that phenomenology is the study of essence (1970). Modern philosophers, however, shift from the essence of things to the experience of things. In short, contemporary phenomenology combines two forces in philosophy: the search for the ambiguous essence of things and wonder conquering the possibility of things (Engelland, 2005).

The embodied lived experience

In phenomenology, the perceived reality is captured through the human experience (Varela et al., 2016). Through close examination of individual experiences, phenomenological scholars seek to grasp the meaning and common features, or essences, of an experience or event. The truth of the event, as an abstract entity, is subjective and knowable only through the individual‘s embodied perception. Simultaneously, we make sense of experiences while moving through space, across time lived relations, and interactions with the physical world (Starks & Brown Trinidad, 2007).

The phenomenological perspective on the embodied lived experience can be illustrated by Einstein, who expresses the differences between embodied time and chronological time: Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. Time seems to follow an universal, ticktock rhythm. But it doesn‘t. That‘s relativity. Thus, Einstein‘s theory of time ties perfectly back to the essence of things and events based on the individual embodied lived experience, and thus phenomenology.

Phenomenology as a method

Like every other qualitative method, a phenomenological research approach addresses questions of meaning and understanding (van Manen, 1990). In regard to design, phenomenology differentiates itself on how the design researchers frame research questions, recruit participants, collect data, and most importantly how to make sense of the data. Phenomenological inquiries, for example, ask questions about lived experiences in contrast to motivations or opinions about them as often used in design research or usability testing.

When it comes to sampling, a phenomenologist is interested in recruiting participants that experience the phenomena of interest. By doing so, the overarching goal is to identify common features of the lived experience to uncover its core elements. The typical sample size for this type of study range from 1 to 10 persons (Starks & Brown Trinidad, 2007).

Similar to ethnographic design research, the data collection strategies include a mix of observation, interviews, memos, notes, and transcripts. Observation is a helpful tool in gathering data about how participants behave in their natural setting in order to anchor their experience. Additionally, observations of how participants live in their environment through time and space provide insights into how they might embody meaning. Although observation is a helpful tool, it might be challenging to execute depending on the phenomena of interest. Therefore, phenomenology relies on interviews as a strategy for primary data collection. The interviews usually follow a semi — structured discussion guide with questions closely bonded to the participant‘s lived experience. The aim is to encourage the subject to elaborate on the details to achieve clarity for anchor points in order to understand the uniqueness of the individual‘s experience. Whether or not the researcher succeeds in this task depends on the conversation itself and primary crafted discussion guide.

Moreover, you cannot do phenomenology with surveys, focus groups, or open-ended questionnaires. Phenomenology reveals itself by asking questions that interfere with the participants embodied perception in one-on-one interviews. After collectin the data, a phenomenologist often writes a story that captures the important elements of the participant‘s lived experience. Eventually, by the end of the story, the reader should feel like she has experienced the phenomenon under-study herself and can envision it.

The strategies and methods explained above enable a reflective researcher to make meaning about the lived human experience of the subject within the phenomena of interest. As Hubert Dreyfus said:

„When the hammer I am using fails to work and I cannot immediately get another, I have to deal with it as too heavy or unbalanced. These characteristics belong to the hammer only as used by me in a specific situation. Being too heavy is certainly not a property of the hammer.“

Taking this into consideration means not to be concerned about the characteristics of the hammer but the subject‘s experience holding it. Thus, phenomenology can be described as a resource to interpret the real world as meaningful — make sense of things (Evenden & Seamon, 1994). This is phenomenology — understanding that is the starting point of how phenomenology can be translated into design.

Designing for the embodied human experience

The exploration of phenomenology as a pathway to design for an expressive and rich embodied human experience is the focus of this section. While a phenomenological approach can take place at every stage of the design process, given the scope of this paper, I‘ve decided to talk about problem framing and prototype testing in more detail.

As explained above, pure phenomenological research seeks to describe rather than explain and start from a perspective free from hypotheses or preconceptions (Husserl, 1970). This strategy is especially relevant for design regarding the problem framing process. It means that the participant‘s experience is being used as the mode of inquiry itself. First, before identifying a problem, you have to think about the specific context you want to design for — the more specific the better. Second, once you have identified the context you want to explore, you start to recruit participants to gain an advanced understanding of the problem space. Participants include people who have experienced the phenomena. By asking the participants about their experience, the designer aims to stay as close to the experience as possible.

To illustrate this point, I share an example of designing devices for older people. There is scientific evidence about the impact of shame on health-related quality of life for older individuals (Mantzoukas et al., 2021). In light of this, to design for this specific group, it is essential to explore what the experience of shame for them looks like and the impact of that experience for designers? What does it mean to be a compassionate designer? To tackle the complexity of today‘s world, we have to acknowledge the uniqueness of the people we design for. We, as designers, have to move from how „things“ are to how „things“ are experienced. This is most effective in describing subjective realities, insights, beliefs, motivation, actions, and folk by clearly showing the participants rather than hiding them (Qutoshi, 2018).

Taking the people‘s experience as a mode of inquiry also offers rich opportunities in prototype testing. Hence, I propose to move beyond usability testing as these methods overlook people‘s unique perception of things. It means instead of looking for does it work, yes or no, to focus on the user‘s expressive, and embodied skills that are tuned to the open and dynamic character of context. We should move beyond basic usability testing to evaluate a product based on the experience and reaction of the participants. The measurement of the participant‘s experience while engaging with the tested object can include how many laughs can be counted. Is there a disinterest, perhaps even awkwardness? When one of these characteristics is observed, ask why — try to anchor the participant‘s experience to the object.

Conclusion

Even though the exploration of people‘s experiences is not a novel term in design, a phenomenological school of thought is. Phenomenology as a philosophy and a method of inquiry is not limited to an approach to knowing; instead, it is an intellectual engagement in interpretations and meaning-making that is used to understand the lived world of human beings at a conscious level. Phenomenology in design research presents a crucial contradiction to contemporary practices and tools towards everyday life‘s continuous, and ever-changing attributes. In this paper, I argue to advance current practices in design research and ground it in a more philosophical approach that respects people as unique skillful beings in a complex social world.

Furthermore, where phenomenology can be used for every audience, it might be particularly suitable in designing for minorities, disabled people, or whenever the uniqueness of an individual or unusualness of a situation matters in particular. A phenomenological lens in design can broaden our understanding of complex phenomenons. Instead of using design research to create better solutions for the many, I invite designers to highlight the people‘s uniqueness and dive into the design of the experience situated in the interaction with an object.

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