A map for these territories: Locating UX research practice by approach and mindset

In user experience, it’s sometimes hard to explain what sort of designer you are. It can be even harder to explain what sort of researcher you are. UX design almost necessarily requires a practitioner to have some sort of research approach as part of their practice. There’s a lot of value in designers of any sort understanding the history of their field. Most design programs will include at least one “design history” course. As Ross Floate says, you need to know your giants.

In UX as much as there are giants of practice and each week brings a new framework or style, there’s less acknowledgement or awareness that the research approaches we use as part of our practice also have a history.

In fact, while there’s a huge variety of UX design research techniques and an even bigger variety of articles that tell you what they are and when to use them, there are far fewer sources that are helpful for understanding the why different approaches are related or where they originated.

Liz Sanders thought about that problem of situating design research approaches and in 2008 she wrote an article for Interactions magazine proposing a map of design practice and research. Sanders proposed a perspective vs mindset 2×2. (You can get the article from Interactions if you have a subscription, from Sanders’ own site, which is hosting a PDF of the whole issue of Interactions or as an HTML page and PDF from Dubberly Design Office’s site.)

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Sanders’ map of design practice and research (Source)

In Sanders’ map, most commercial UX practice is in the lower left quarter. It’s done with an expert mindset, designing for people and it’s research led, being based on data gathering approaches from psychology, sociology and anthropology. Sanders is grouping a lot of competing approaches in this quarter. One reason I like Sanders’ diagram is that it doesn’t try to lay out the quantitative vs qualitative divide which can seem like an approach or mindset argument but which is really a dispute about about what counts as data. The user-centred design bubble reaches out of the lower quarter, and it’s clear that there are firms that are starting to occupy that space, notably Studio D Radiodurans and ReD Associates.

Sanders’ map puts participatory design on the left and has it span both research-led and design-led approaches. She identifies the research led participatory approach as being “Scandinavian”. The broad “Scandinavian” approach is also called co-design.

The design-led part of the diagram is more contested, or perhaps arguably less mature, as it has far fewer small bubbles than the research-led side. Sanders puts “generative design research” in the top right and this is the location of her own practice.

The top left of the diagram, encompassing Critical Design and Design + Emotion might seem like it’s largely academic but there are practices like Superflux that occupy that space.

There are multiple advantages of a diagram like Sanders’. For me, today at least, it gives me a way to understand where my approach has come from and where it is today. I studied HCI in my undergraduate days, placing me firmly in the centre of the lower left. Today, I’m still research led but, with my post-graduate background in ethnography and sociology, I’m moving towards the participatory side.

Just as it’s important for designers to understand the history what they design, in UX it’s equally important to be able to situate how we collect and work with information. Without understanding where one research approach comes from and how it relates to other approaches, UX designers will be cargo-cult, or perhaps bower-bird, researchers who are unable to articulate why they use certain methods and not others. Sanders’ map of design practice and research lets us start having that conversation and might even help us explain a little more about what we do.

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