Curiosity Killed the Status Quo
Conversations with colleagues #2: A reflection on the value of research and vision setting in strategic design.
Strategic design is a multidisciplinary creative practice that uses insights from research and data to inform new pathways that may lead to long-term cultural, environmental, and technological change. The practice is fundamentally anchored in methods of discovery, skills of listening, and an approach of curiosity, which, paired with analysis, interpretation, and imagination, become the springboard to designing a better future.
In autumn last year, I had the chance to discuss the broader aspects of strategic design and its impact with two colleagues from the Arup Digital Studio. The transcript from our conversation can be found here: Champions of Strategic Design. This winter, the conversation continues, with Rebecca Chau and Anastasia Vikhornova offering their thoughts on two pillars of our professional practice: (User) Research & Vision Setting. This article provides a transcript of our conversation, which took place online, one grey Monday afternoon in January 2021.
Me: Anastasia and Rebecca, thank you both for taking the time to participate in this conversation about your work and practice. Just to start us off, perhaps you might wish to share a short summary of your professional journey to date? In this field, people tend to have quite different backgrounds, so it is always interesting to understand where people have come from.
Anastasia: Sure, I can start. I come from a design background so it was through my studies that I first realised the strategic value of design along with its inherent multi-disciplinarity.
As a designer, you learn to question things and you become very critical of any situation that offers you a quick solution without properly understanding the underlying problem. You learn to be curious in your search for answers, which are often found in other disciplines and areas of knowledge. That is where the multi-disciplinarity emerges; out of curiosity.
In design school, you learn to be curious in your search for answers. The multi-disciplinary aspects emerge out of curiosity.
I was also taught practices of speculative design. Speculative design uses different methods to imagine the future — especially in relation to the impact that technology can have on people’s lives. Together, these skills form a constant learning process, a way of approaching the world.
Rebecca: I come from more traditional built environment disciplines, studying urban planning, engineering, and a bit of architecture. From this perspective, I recognised how rarely solutions were driven by the people that would actually inhabit and experience the built form of a place or space, and I became increasingly interested in exploring how to create a more inclusive and outcome-led dialogue. I strongly felt that people should play a role in creating places for people, but my education and discipline was not particularly focused in this direction. I needed to create my own toolkit.
In my career, I have worked in both master planning and transport planning, on projects that have sought to put people at the centre, but I only really started feeling at home when I discovered strategic design. Now I am confident that there is a place for a practitioner like me, and I am grateful to be able to grow my skills surrounded by like minded people.
Me: I sit between the two of you, as a student of architecture and design. I’ve both really enjoyed learning how to question and construct an architectural brief, and been frustrated by the overly technical focus that dominates the built environment industries.
We all seem to share a desire to understand the purpose behind a design, above its physical shape and before it is inserted into the real world. How do you view and value the role of research, and specifically user research, in getting to the root of a project’s purpose?
Rebecca: I think that research is fundamental to any project. In terms of the built environment, then there are already many research activities that take place in order to inform a design, specifically in the areas of understanding the physical and technological context of a site. The strategic design practice naturally looks at these and a variety of other sources in order to inform insights, but I think the user perspective is the most important and complementary one.
Talking to people and learning about their needs can shed a completely new light on a project, and help drive more holistic outcomes. The value proposition becomes infinitely strong.
Talking to people and learning about their needs can shed a completely new light on a project, and help drive more holistic outcomes. But there is also a deeper, more catalytic effect from the types of rigorous user research methodologies that strategic design employs; if done right, the insights from this process can anchor the entire purpose of a project and make the value proposition infinitely strong.
Anastasia: I completely agree with everything that Bec has said. Although my official title is ‘UX designer’, I am definitely as much of a researcher as I am a designer. To do any kind of design with confidence, you have to research. There is a cornucopia of information to uncover once you step into this process where, in addition to making new revelations, you test, validate, and augment existing assumptions.
During the actual active research, I find that I am often a mediator of different voices. User research is about communicating the needs of people, even differing needs. Without these conversations, there is a high risk that you miss the opportunity to deliver important, value-adding outcomes.
Rebecca: There’s another benefit to bringing insights from user research into the design process: The voices of real people with real needs — if presented strategically — have an ability to cut through the politics and assumptions that sometimes surround built environment projects, thereby creating a new space for innovation and creativity.
Me: You obviously both highly value user research, and see multiple benefits to bringing user perspectives into the design of the built environment. I have also experienced an increased receptiveness across the industry to involve teams with user research capabilities. But what might be some of the challenges we should be aware of?
Anastasia: Yes, of course there is a flip-side to the coin. While it is important to consider people in any project, there is a danger of becoming too focused on user needs at the expense of other agents such as the natural environment and its inhabitants. I think that is some of what we have seen in the recent development of many digital tools.
There is a danger of becoming too focused on user needs at the expense of other agents such as the natural environment and its inhabitants.
Me: Yes, I completely agree. I have started thinking about this as ‘the dark side of UX’. The issue is that a user’s needs might not align with what society or, indeed, the natural environment requires. The iPhone is a great example of a design that meets a user’s “need” for easy internet-based service access, whilst perhaps also working against that very same user’s need for real-world interaction. It is user experience design for the individual in isolation of a single activity. There’s a whole range of dependencies which are simply not considered.
Of course, it is not impossible for multiple needs — human and otherwise — to be evaluated and met simultaneously. How do you think we might strike this balance?
Rebecca: For me, this is quite a fundamental question, and it explains why strategic design is needed as an overall practice. User experience design is part of this practice, but you have to move between individual and societal ambitions, between short- and long-term goals, between human and non-human requirements to deliver truly transformational projects.
Anastasia: As soon as you have zoomed in to identify a requirement or opportunity, you have to zoom out to understand how the piece fits into the bigger picture. It is not your job as a user researcher in strategic design to give everyone exactly what they want.
Rebecca: Exactly! There is such a difference between asking people what they want and understanding, across every layer and scale, what they need. For example, for a transport project, you might hear from someone that they absolutely need their car. But, by asking questions and probing deeper, you will be able to understand that what they really want is independent and private travel that enables them to be a supportive parent.
The breadth and depth of the user research field gets to the bottom of the “why” as well as the “what”. By zooming out and taking in all the contextual information, the solution can stretch beyond any person’s imagination of the future.
Me: This naturally bring us to the next topic of our discussion: vision setting. I was hoping you could speak a little about how you use lessons learned from research to create new scenarios and possibilities for the future.
Anastasia: I actually used to be much more engaged with creating my own future scenarios than I am today. To me, the last five years have made it very clear where we need to go as a society, and my focus has shifted towards designing the mechanisms that might get us there.
The ideal future scenario is a world where creation and innovation is driven by people and the environment, not by corporations and exploitation.
In my opinion, the ideal future scenario is a just world, with a fair and equal welfare society that enables people to live well while minimally impacting on the ecology of our planet. It is a world where creation and innovation is not driven by corporations, but by people and the environment. It is a world without exploitation of people and nature.
From my work, I can see very directly how design can lead to this future in small ways, by opening gateways and rejigging the system.
Me: Do you not think that the power of imagination is a key component to not only articulate, but also deliver, this vision?
Rebecca: There’s a role for imagination when we describe the “how” — the tactics and strategies — that will lead us along the way. The outcome that Anastasia describes needs to be supported by visions and goals that can be set based on today’s requirements, and assessed in relation to what the future might bring.
Anastasia: There’s a system design rule, which says that your system will only perform according to the goals you set. Or something like that.
Me: Might it be useful to describe your work in three stages then: There is the baseline understanding, the long-term vision, and the steps and actions required to connect these two dots?
Rebecca: I think that feels right.
Me: Are there any industries, sectors, or areas where this approach might fit in better than others?
Anastasia: Any industry that deals with people anywhere in the world should engage with user research, and would probably also benefit from strategic design methods.
In the private sector, there is a specific phase in a company’s life when the business is open to change and reinvention. At this moment, people — whether employees or customers — will need to be considered and understood in order to inform the future state. Some companies will think of this as a digital transformation, but that is only a fraction of it. Societal changes are forcing companies to mature and become more holistic in their approach, and user research will be a crucial part of this journey.
Rebecca: I completely agree that user research and strategic design has value for the private sector, but I also don’t think we can get away from the fact that the public sector is set up to maintain and manage long-term impact on society, whereas many businesses are not.
We can find a lot of ways to speak to private clients about the benefits of strategic design, and all those things are true, but the nice thing when we work with the public sector is that the third dimension is already baked into the approach. In the public sector, you are expected to consider individuals and society side-by-side.
Me: For our last couple of minutes, I was hoping you could share a few aspects of what you most enjoy about your work and practice, specifically when it comes to the research parts of your approach?
Rebecca: Two things jump out to me. On a day-to-day basis, I find it to be very humbling to be invited into people’s homes and personal space with a purpose to really understand their lives. It is a researcher’s privilege to be able to meet and talk to so many different people. Especially, as we live in a world of online and physical echo chambers, I feel that these experiences are crucial to making me a better designer, strategist, and person.
It is a researcher’s privilege to be able to meet and talk to so many different people.
I also greatly enjoy using my imagination in my job. I love thinking about how things can be different, which is a direct reaction to the insights I derive from doing research. The leap from understanding to action is quite profound and deeply satisfying.
On a higher level, I have realised how issues of equality and diversity are lacking in the built environment. My job is about enabling everyone to thrive and I genuinely feel like I can help give people a voice in citymaking.
Anastasia: I resonate with Bec’s appreciation of the user research experience. I have always enjoyed talking to people, being the mediator of different voices, and helping to make needs tangible and actionable. I used to sit on benches and talk to people as a way to understand the real pulse of a place. Just experiencing the humanity of these connections is the most precious aspect of the work. It is a way of learning about life.
These days, with Covid-19 restricting physical movement and contact, we are conducting research remotely. I miss being immersed in the physicality of the research context, with all the nuances of places and personal interactions with people.
Me: I hear that. Let’s hope we may soon again be able to visit people and places outside of the shadow cast by the pandemic.
Thank you Bec and Anastasia for sharing your thoughts and experiences on user research and vision setting within the strategic design field. I have really appreciated the chance to reflect on our work, and I hope that anyone who reads this transcript will have learned something too.
The Conversations with Colleagues format welcomes further dialogues with practitioners of strategic design. Feel free to reach out or get in touch if you have suggestions for the next conversations.