Stay grounded, stay curious: how to use published articles in early-stage design research

A student asked me yesterday if she could use articles as part of her design research. She was starting a project about 2nd-generation immigrant teenagers in Germany, and, unsurprisingly, she had found several reports and magazine articles about what it’s like to grow up bi-cultural.

At first the answer seemed obvious to me. Of course we want to soak up information about the context we’re researching, anywhere we can get it. Why would we ignore what’s already been written?

Then I realized that she had a very good reason for asking this question. When we teach and do design research, especially the way we often teach it in the context of design thinking, we stress first-hand experience. We say that you should do your own interviews, visit sites yourself, and form your own impressions. Put simply, we emphasize learning for yourself, even though the topic has almost certainly been explored before by somebody. The goal isn’t efficiency, or even thoroughness. Design research is a subjective search for inspiration and understanding.

In comparison, reading secondary sources seems too abstracted, too constraining. Too abstracted, because you’re relying on others’ pre-processed interpretations. Too constraining, because it boxes you into the way others have already thought.

But there is absolutely a way to use the works of others for design research. The key is that you need to read them in a very different way. In design research, our goal is not to answer a concrete question, but to find inspiration and see the world differently in order to define the question for ourselves. So, even though most articles are written in order to provide answers, you want to use them to open your field of view, not close it down. The questions below will help get you started thinking in this way.

(For any humanists or scholars of media and cultural studies, this is familiar territory. Go away. You know this already. But for people who come to design research from other fields, it may not be obvious at all.)

What kind of articles are we talking about?

The questions below are oriented towards edited sources meant for non-experts, such as magazines, newspapers, non-academic books, and whitepapers intended for a general audience. Think Die Zeit, the New York Times, a book you’d find in a bookstore, or a report published by a consultancy or a nonprofit.

This applies to peer-reviewed academic works as well, like an academic journal article, with a couple caveats: it may be much harder to understand the point of view of an academic article if you’re not in that field. The discourse is more advanced, and requires more background. On the other hand, you probably don’t need to double-check the facts presented.

The caveats are slightly different for sources that don’t have a review process: a blog post (like this one!), a Facebook post, a tweetstorm. It’s easier to understand the discourse and the point of view, but quite a bit harder to fact-check, or even to trace where the facts are coming from.

How should designers read articles?

On the most basic level, the content of the article might be useful to you.

  • You may learn facts that help you develop better-informed research. For example, if you learn that 1 in 4 black Americans in their 20s have had a parent go to prison, you might rethink “what do your parents do for work?” as a casual starter question. (In the US, it can be very difficult for people who have been to prison to find jobs afterwards.) You don’t want to overreact (or racially profile!) — this doesn’t mean you should never ask black people in their 20s about their parents. It just means that the question might be more loaded than you first expected.
  • You might get some names or institutions of people to contact. The writer might be willing to talk to you — it’s worth a try.

But don’t just read the article for content: think about it as an designed artifact. Try to figure out what’s going on beneath the surface, who made it, why and how.

  • Who is the author? What is their field? What else have they written? Where might their blind spots be?
  • What language does the writer use? What does that tell you about their attitudes? Think about the different images conjured up by the words “full-time mom,” “non-working mom,” “unemployed mother,” “stay-at-home mom,” “homemaker,” and “housewife.”
  • Why do you think the author wrote this? Analyze the writing style and the publication’s target audience. Are they trying to convince a particular audience of something? Are they trying to evoke a particular feeling? Why? Do you think it’s working?

Finally, once you’ve read a few articles, you want to look at the landscape of writing about this topic. Look at the article as an artifact that’s part of a system. As Marshall McLuhan writes, “societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication” (The Book of Probes, 2011).

  • What kinds of publications seem to cover this topic frequently? Why do you think that is? And, of course, follow the money: who seems to be paying for this topic to be covered?
  • How easy or hard is it for you to find articles about this topic? If it’s “hot,” why do you think that is?
  • Go out of your way to find some older articles (this might mean searching on the websites of particular newspapers or magazines). How has the coverage of this topic changed over time?
     
    Words written by others don’t need to distance you from firsthand experience, and they don’t need to put blinkers on you. If you’re able to look at a written article as an object in itself, you’ll find that the way people discuss any subject raises plenty of questions, tensions, surprises, and contradictions — and this is exactly what you want in design research.

Cross-posted to my blog. Thanks to Benedikt Ewald for advice and feedback.