Designing for Experience

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For just about anyone working on a PhD (at least outside Science), the core of your research is a moving target. The ever-shifting ‘research question’ is frustratingly elusive, and despite beginning the process with what you feel is a pretty clear field of study in mind, it won’t be long before some well-meaning academics have you doubting that certainty and wondering what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into. That customer service job starts sounding better and better after a while…

My journey started 2 years ago, and only now am I starting to feel as though I’m putting together a solid idea of what I’m doing. No doubt someone will soon tell me that I’m wrong, but I’ve learnt along the way not to listen to them. At least not too much. Some of the best advice I’ve be given is to remember that this PhD is my research. Plenty of vested interests will try and redirect you along the way, but ultimately this work is mine and I will have to stand behind it one day. That day is getting closer and as is required in Academia, I will have to learn to argue my case more compellingly.

Something I did well during Honours, but seem to have lost during the PhD is using this blog as a place to flesh out ideas and construct arguments. Writing regularly – regardless of quality – was a great habit and an important process in documenting ideas. Particularly within an iterative practice, it’s something I should return to in a hurry. So rather than a coherent argument, this is simply an effort to put down in writing where I now believe this research is situated.

I came into this study with a real aversion to giving myself the title of Artist. Even studying at an art school, the idea that what I create is Art doesn’t sit well with me; the work that I construct is for someone else and not necessarily an aesthetic statement that I see Art as capable of achieving (there is a debate to be had there, but it doesn’t particularly interest me in terms of my research). In retrospect, by not accepting any title at all, my area of study became muddied and directionless. If only for this reason, I’ve recently decided that what I do is more akin to a Design process than anything else and that instantly opened the door to some amazing work done in Interaction and Experience-Based Design.

Of course, halfway into this study, there is a concern (some from myself; much more from my supervisors) that the more I continue to research, the more new papers/practitioners I find that are relevant to my own work and the field of study continues to grow exponentially. What I really need is to fence off the current area of study and dig deeper. The following is by no means a definitive fencing-off (the boundaries will always be fluid) – this is just an effort to lay a few foundations…

I have been reading a couple of books over the past month which are beginning to shape the way that I think about my own practice and – importantly – the way that my designs may/may not facilitate a variety of experiences in those who engage with it. One, Design Meets Disability by Graham Pullin is an accessible, but no less important, mediation on how Design approaches the creation of products for people with a disability, and indeed whether ‘disability’ is even the best way to think about what is a vast group of people, each with unique feelings about the role of disability in their own lives. Using eyeglasses as a touchstone example of Design breaking down walls of stigma around disability, Pullin discusses other ways in which products might be created to appeal to both the mainstream population and those considered to have atypical abilities.

Perhaps more informing in helping me devise a methodology, has been a long paper titled, Experience-Centered Design: Designers, Users, and Communities in Dialogue by Peter Wright and John McCarthy. In this paper, a discussion of the ways in which experience can be a focus for and through Design is presented, including relevant methodologies, works and links to other disciplines.

The latter work is helpful in situating myself as a practitioner; as I’ve mentioned above, this is something that I’ve found very difficult to do. Possibly because my training was so heavily skills-based (the now defunct Bachelor of Digital Media was strongly focused on learning software packages, over placement of work within a larger Art or Design context), I came to the PhD with no notion of myself as a peer of Design – more so a returning student. For me, what has resulted is an unwillingness to connect to any particular methodology or process – a vital step in PhD research. This awareness situates you within a body of work, alongside other peers and practitioners, and brings certain methodologies into focus.

With 2 years of PhD study already behind me, I’m only just beginning to get a sense of what it is that I do, and give it a dreaded title. Despite the (sometimes) overwhelming role that technology plays in my work, this is not the focus – nor even the most interesting part of my research. Instead, I’m attempting to facilitate a human experience. During Honours, this was framed by allowing a girl with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to direct my Design iterations through her response to the work that I created. For the PhD, I am hoping to facilitate conversation (in any of its forms) with several children diagnosed with an ASD, allowing it to unfold through interaction with a space that responds and suggests, just as any other conversation would. This doesn’t make my work any less of a Design process; it’s simply an attempt at empathy for a specific user, not the materials involved. For this reason, my work has clear links to HCI and human studies, such as ethnography.

It’s obvious that my work hinges around conversations with others. My attitude toward what constitutes a conversation has likely been formed through my past experience with performance, namely live theatre sound and DJing. On remembering this, I realised the importance of reconnecting with sound in my work. Experiences of music directing the pace and texture of a conversation are poignant memories for me, and something that I am now returning to in this work. I bring to this research a strong intuition that reflecting on a conversation held within a space that both responds (interactive systems, etc) and directs (music, etc) will help to shape my own methodology and process further.

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