I think one of the best parts about doing research as a designer is our ability to adapt. Adaptation is such a crucial skill for a designer, not only longterm adaptations as project progress changes, but also on-the-fly, spontaneous changes while talking research participants.
I spent most of my afternoon at Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital today, as I finally got clearance to start my thesis project work. I had four hands-on design activities meticulously planned, designed, and crafted for families to do, and in my head I had an idea of what I wanted them to do, what I was going to say, and so on. When it came time to interview my first participant, it became obvious that there was no way any of my research activities were going to go as planned. My participant was in a chair holding her small baby, with tubes coming out of him in every which way, and the room was set up so that there was only room for me to sit across from her, with no tables, or any sort of furniture that could cater to any sort of design activity.
Luckily, I was familiar with the most important aspect of my design activities: the information that I wanted to find out from my research. I was prepared to brainstorm alternative ways to get this information without making it a boring interview session. I had my participant imagine being in different scenarios, I let her pretend for 10 small minutes that she had unlimited resources and money, and I had her picture what it would be like for new families coming into the hospital in a similar situation. The second family that I interviewed was in the same situation… all I got to do was to talk to them, but the father was so excited about imagining an ideal information-giving situation that he started designing in his head and telling me all about what they would’ve really liked, and how it could work, etc. While there is no substitute for handing my participants my laminated experience-cards that I made, or having them make little cards and creating their own welcome kit for other families, setting up scenarios and letting them play around and imagine in their heads did the trick almost just as well. Imagination is a powerful tool.
Contrast this to the many scientific tests I did as an undergrad, where everything followed a strict protocol. Sidestep this protocol in any fashion, and your results could be deemed scientifically invalid. Yes, scientific studies are important for a variety of reasons, but in design we embrace the fact that our research plays to the designer’s intent and whatever they want to do to get information.
Of course, adaptation really only works if the designer is prepared enough and competent (and maybe creative?) enough to be able to think on the spot, otherwise it could be pretty tricky. I am by no means perfect, but I think the increasing number of projects that I’ve done, and the way that we are thrown into unfamiliar situations in our projects makes it a lot easier now to be comfortable making things up on the go, and getting just as good of information as we would’ve gotten had we been able to stick with the original plan. Original plans are good, but when faced with an unexpected situation, so are the fifty other ones that are floating around in your head, waiting to be given a chance ;)