Design is an act of planning the interactive system and how it works. Design does not have a single right answer; rather, design explores the opportunities available, or more formally, the design space. Often, one core challenge in design work is to identify the best solution. More senior designers often know how to identify a more diverse set of design opportunities initially and narrow the scope only later, thus covering more of the design space during their investigations.
To help others work in a similar manner, some design materials suggest one ought to use the double diamond process (see Figure 7.1): have clear stages for identifying several different answers (divergence) and narrow the scope to a smaller set of potential answers (convergence). This is done twice: first to uncover what is the right formulation for the problem and then to identify solutions to the problem. The design process can be used in various contexts, including public service design, design of online services, design of organisational processes or even the design of the toilet maintenance process for a business entity. Reasons for its increased use may be its flexibility and tools it provides to address the somewhat complex processes common in modern societies.
Another commonly used approach is design thinking, a five-step process to develop novel things. First, it is important to understand what users need and want (i.e. interview them, observe what they do). Following this, one defines the problem more extensively and ideates solutions for them. Finally, prototypes are created for some of the ideas and they are tested to learn what works and what does not work. While it is presented as a linear process, it is important to recognise that design thinking, or design activities, rarely is a linear process but includes loops and setbacks. Furthermore, the essence of both of these approaches is the user-centric nature of them. The aim is to examine the needs or wants of the user.
These are tools commonly used when designers work with artefacts, services or experiences. What are the benefits of such research approaches for social scientists seeking to understand the society around them but not to develop artefacts, services or experiences? First, the design process can be used to gather data. The design process also forces manifestation of difficult concepts in some material format. This may help uncover novel aspects of them or serve as boundary objects, supporting interdisciplinary trading zones. Alternatively, as design work seeks several different solutions and engages in testing and discussion, some of the stages can inform us about the surrounding society. For example, sketches of interfaces for political discussions can be used to understand country-level differences in political cultures (Nelimarkka et al., 2019) or examine political elitesâ beliefs and values (in review). These are just some examples possible for social scientists if they are willing to embrace a novel take on knowledge forming.
Before moving further into the design practice and discussing how design work is done and how scholarly work emerges from design work, we must acknowledge that design as a discipline has many different directions - beyond the brief examples of double diamonds and design thinking. Some of these may give additional tools to sociological imagination to work on. Thus, a brief review of them may be helpful.
First, there can be different goals that designers have when conducting scholarly work. Fallman (2008) identifies three: working as a practitioner on a project, exploring a design space in an open-ended fashion or understanding how designers and design works. He observes how scholars can engage across different approaches during a single research project. Thus, design scholarship opens the opportunity to conduct work with practitioners and then move to more explanatory and possibly critical design ideas.
Design researchers, like others, have been focusing on the role of theory and concepts in their work. Stolterman and Wiberg (2010) highlight how design could be grounded to particular concepts, which then guide how the design space is examined. Different materialisations further describe what the research of these concepts should account for. Another direction is to see that the design process unravels ideas that help to link higher-level theories to empirical cases. Höök and Löwgren (2012) suggest that it can lead to strong concepts, intermediate-level knowledge abstracted from empirical instances, but is not yet generic enough to become theories. They suggest that there are knowledge objects that are worthy to give insights on the research problem and inform other designers even if they do not provide an exhaustive theoretical apparatus. These examples illustrate that design itself is not separate from `the theoryâ but has its own take on the relationship between the two.
Finally, a core question in many design works is: Who are the designers? In user-centric design, the user is in the focus of the design work. However, their roles are subjects: they are the objects to whom things are designed. Some scholars have argued that one should partner with the users during the design and not only design for them. Approaches like participatory design (Muller, 2007) and co-design (Sanders and Stappers, 2008) focus on engaging users as partners and working together with researchers and designers. These approaches change how the design work is conducted and allow different perspectives to emerge during the analysis. For example, participatory design invites people to discuss technological choices and engage in design activities. Therefore, it is not only designers who use the materiality to help them express more about their thinking; rather, everyone can be part of the process and benefit from this. These insights would support the researchers as well as produce new kinds of data.