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Six weeks research visit at the CoDesign cluster is coming to an end, and I’m wrapping up and taking leave of the rather wonderful Holmen HQ. Fortunately, it’s not really goodbye, as I have joined the cluster’s mini study-circle on mapping, and will thus be coming back in January to discuss interactions, map-making, (counter) cartography and more in connection with Paya Hauch Fenger’s PhD research into co-design of geo parks.

Of course, this is a little out on a tangent in relation to my own research. But if there’s one thing that’s been very clear from working in this environment, it’s the value of collaborative learning in research. I’ve surely benefited from this when presenting my own project, and from enlisting the group in an Interaction Analysis session around my video material. But I have also learned a lot from engaging in other people’s projects, from discussions over lunch and from simply listening in on the ongoing meetings and weekly round table catch ups. Of course, I have experienced such benefits before, but the way that it’s such an integral part of the work processes here is new to me. The group’s dedication to sharing knowledge, insights and uncertainties, not only in the projects they are collaborating on, but also when in comes to engaging in individual research conundrums, was something that struck me when I first came, and still something that seems to me a unique quality of this cluster. Which is sad, really, that it should be a unique quality and not a more widespread approach to research. I for one would love to see this kind of academic interaction spreading, and will definitely see if I can plant a seed back at my own institution.

CoDesign weekly meeting - clockwise from left: Paya Hauch Fenger, Tuuli Makkelmäti, Mette Agger Eriksen, Eva Brandt, Kelton Minor & Joachim Halse

CoDesign weekly meeting – clockwise from left: Paya Hauch Fenger, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Mette Agger, Eva Brandt, Kelton Minor & Joachim Halse

A couple of weeks ago, for example, the weekly meeting was followed by a group discussion about an early paper draft by Mette Agger, Tuuli Mattelmäki, Kirsikka Vaajakallio and Eva Brandt for next year’s PDC conference. Opening up the process at a stage where the outcome still wasn’t fixed, led to some very interesting discussions about methodology, academic writing, audiences and the many very different forms that this paper could still take; or rather multitude of papers that could be written from this material to share either empirical results, theoretical assertions, how-to applicabilities etc. I believe that the authors were given some useful input to inform their continued writing, and I will be looking forward to reading the finished article. But also for us as participants, considering the value of various contributions to the field, the craft of making an argument and of course the ideas put forth in the paper, was very inspiring.

So it’s this discussive and collaborative approach, along with the new insights into my own project,  that I will be taking with me, and for which I wish to send a great thank you to the whole CoDesign team and their affiliates!

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Finally got round to actually working with the empirical material from my two workshops at Designmuseum Danmark. What’s more, I think I’ve found my handle on it too, after battling through uncertainties about how, and not least why I should do it.

There’s a back story to that uncertainty. Initially, I set out to explore how mobile museum experiences would tie in with more general pursuits of cultural/fashion interest via mobile and social media; a media ecology kind of thinking. But as I was also very keen on carrying on the design research approach I had developed in my master thesis, I came to realise that there was a mismatch between the questions I wanted to ask and what my methodology would let me answer. Methodology won out, sending me on a route that is more museology and less media oriented, i.e. asking about the implications of mobile museum experiences for the museum. And yet I felt that I still had to do some kind of empirical study, that I had to produce some data I could analyse and learn from and base my assertions on. Being an academic rookie, I lacked the confidence to stick to humanistic analysis with a design twist, thinking that it would not count as real science. So now I’m trying to make it count.

The concept of coding still feels a bit alien, like there’s some part of it I’m not getting because I never trained in social science. I’m a humanist, studied literature before moving on to design and digital culture studies. I have only a vague notion of grounded theory; ‘coding’ is not really my lingo. But it’s an aspect of analysis, right, it’s marking up your data (data is another word that feels wrong, cold somehow) to work out what’s in there, what the themes and discourses are, exposing contradictions and finding patterns, deciding what issues to pursue and how they relate to the material overall. At least that’s how I understand the process I’m going through.

After giving some consideration to coding software for qualitative data, reading about and checking out demo videos for Atlas.ti and Nvivo, I decided that a) spending time learning how to use the software would be a detour, given that my material is not that extensive, and b) the digital format somehow distanced me from the content, whereas an analogue approach gave me a better sense of what was there and what I wanted to do with it, as an iterative process rather than working to a preset design. Fairly grounded theory-esque, I guess. Keeping it handheld was also more consistent with my process so far – designing my probes and the design game for the workshops had been a very touchy-feely affair, and being able to paste the whole thing on my wall gives me a better sense of overview, something I’ve used in various stages of the project.

Concept/inspiration collage for development of workshop and design game

Concept/inspiration wall collage for design development

Coded transcripts from workshop II+III

Coded transcripts from workshop II+III

So through painstakingly adding hundreds of multi-coloured post-its (annotating and marking different strands and marvelling at how pretty it is) I have uncovered some interesting themes that I can unfold in my continued analysis and discuss in relation to other sources and observations and to theoretical positions in museology. These themes include commercial constraints and considerations (and how much the participating curators take these into account in their work); the importance of brand and branding; notions of institutional authority and curatorial ambitions; museological positions and practices; professional positionings; audience/user perspectives including UCG; pros, cons and contradictions re. cross-media communication; fashion as field and fashion as perspective; and more. Despite my recurring uncertainties about what this empirical study was really for, given that it is so limited that I cannot make many claims on this basis alone, it has actually served the purpose of illuminating some of the possibilities and conflicts in my field of study, as per my research design:

Diagram of research design

Diagram of research design

So it’s coming together. But will I also be able to make sense of it, as in valid scientific sense? Still grabbling with (and increasingly fascinated by) what science is, what makes it scientific, especially when pushing the traditional boundaries of science. I expect some would argue that what I do isn’t real science, and I know that making a solid argument for the validity of design research in general and of my study specifically will be one of the prime tasks in my dissertation. Which is why I ramble about it here, even if it also makes me feel exposed, to try to come to grips with what I’ve done and why. Thinking out loud, in print (and keeping my supervisors updated too). In this way, these slap-dash pontifications on the blog serve as rough sketches for the arguments I wish to make in my thesis, or sometimes just to off-load all the preamble, so that in my thesis, I can cut to the chase.

Martin Ludvigsen, in chapter seven: ‘Reflections on Interaction Design Research’ of his 2006 PhD dissertation Designing for Social Interaction does an excellent job of explaining the groundings of interaction design research in HCI and makes a strong argument for its scientific validity, which I will surely build on in my own thesis. (Actually, it’s the kind of writing that I wish I could do.) Conceding that ‘[f]undamentally it is difficult to accept design thinking as valid because of the intrinsic lack of logics and, when we delve deeper into it, the lack of scientific rigor with regards to reproducibility, falsification, objectivity etc.’ (2006:93) he moves on to expound the virtues of aesthetic reasoning as an alternative to logic. Rather than narrowly focusing on functionality and measurable results, ‘thinking aesthetically about an interactive artifact is to be conscious about its entire composition over time and the effect it has on the context and users’ (ibid.), Ludvigsen argues. Building on the German philosopher Baumgarten, as explicated by Kjørup (1999), he thus establishes aesthetics as an analytical discipline, and alternative route to enlightenment, as ‘conceptual discovery or epistemological evolution is a continual shedding light on new concepts’ (Ludvigsen 2006:94). Using our cognitive capacity for creative thinking and innovation as a way to understand ‘wicked problems’ (Buchanan 1995, in Ludvigsen 2006:90, 92), i.e. problems that can only be described in full through attempted solutions, and for aesthetic judgement as conducive for hollistic understandings of problems in context and for (un)covering conceptual grounds, should therefore be regarded as an invaluable supplement to logics-led scientific experimentation. As argued by Ludvigsen ‘The aestetic ‘track’ in the human mind is active. This should be read as a proposal for a foundation to talk about design thinking as equal – not subordinate to – logic and traditional scientific thinking’ (2006:97).

He then goes on to cite Latour’s normative definitions of science, which break with the traditional paradigm of Popperian falsification to build instead on the principles proposed by the Belgian philosophers Stenger and Despret. Without selling short the importance of rigor, the emphasis here is on scientific relevance, suggesting that sticking to tried and tested scientific activities does not in itself secure that a study is scientific, as, according to Stenger and Despret, scientific means interesting and risky (Ludvigsen 2006:100) – breaking new ground and making yourself vulnerable to seeing your hypothesis crumble. The aim of science then, rather than making absolute statements, is  ‘rendering talkative what was until then mute‘ (ibid.:101); to articulate propositions about the world, thus adding to what Latour calls the multiverse. This, obviously, ties in neatly with what I touched upon in my paper for the Nordes doctoral consortiumalso with reference to Latour, about the ability of design to articulate (museological) matters of concern, thus posing a constructive critique which allows for discussion of the current state and possible futures of the museum.

This sort of stuff is right up my alley. I’m really not much of an empiricist, finding theory and creative explorations much more inspiring and hence more productive for my cognitive process. My home brewed, half baked heuristic is that just like learning theory talks about different learning styles, different kinds of science speaks to different kinds of minds. So even though I can appreciate the significance of, say, quantitative data on patterns of mobile use in museums, it doesn’t necessarily push my buttons or satiate my curiosity about why these use patterns are as they are, why people were in the museums in the first place, the existential and social role of museums in society, what it all means and if it could be otherwise? So it’s truly great that other scientist will do the crucial studies that I don’t have the knack for, and that I instead get the chance to apply different methodologies to different types of questions (i.e. watered down versions of the questions above). Which I hold are worth pursuing, and which might speak to others with an interest similar to mine.

At last, its time for the Nordes13 conference, starting yesterday with a very stimulating doctoral consortium. I have been looking forward to this opportunity to meet with peers and learn from seniors doing design research for a long time, as I do feel very out of the loop, being the only one to take this approach at my institution.

It was therefore very inspiring and informative to hear about the other doctoral participants’ projects, and of course also very useful to get some critical, constructive feedback on my own paper and presentation. But to be honest, it also made me panic a bit.

My concerns about being an outlier, and not really grounded in design research, were not put to rest, rather I was reminded of all the things I don’t know. The ongoing discussions in the field, the assumptions behind the different approaches, the programs, tools and methods. I mean, I know the basics, but really I have just been building my own method from the ideas that inspired me. And although experimentation is welcome in this field, I suddenly felt that I lack the understanding and the guidance to be able to explain what it is that I have been doing, and criticizing and situating my own research within the design field, let alone transfering it to the field of museology.

So even though I had a general thumbs up to my approach, for instance in using a visual journal as a tool for research, I still find it hard to answer to/ specify exactly what I have done with it that makes it designerly, or research quality, and not simply a few pretty pages in a notebook. (I’ve started a draft for another post about the journal, because I’ve put off trying to explain it for so long, and I really need to start reflecting on it properly, so I won’t go into that here.)

No to self (from Joachim Halse)

No to self (from Joachim Halse)

As for the other comments, I really wish I had recorded the response I had, because I was too busy engaging in the conversation to take down  notes, and so I might lose some of the good points that were made.

One significant overall comment, from Lasse Hallnäs, was the assertion that my project/scope was very broad. I’m still trying to work out what to make of it, as it is not a criticism I’ve had before (when discussing my project with my supervisors or presenting in other settings). I actually thought that I had managed to narrow it down quite nicely (in general) as well as pitching this short paper and presentation to this particular context. Either way, I will have to consider whether my project really is to ambitious or unfocused, or whether it is my presentation of it that is too unclear, leading to misreadings of my actual intentions- or perhaps a combination of the two.

One contributory factor is perhaps that researchers in this field might place a greater emphasis on the design research aspects of the project, thus also expecting it to make up a more substantial part of the project than I envisage, seeing the design process mainly as a tool for thinking, a methodological approach, whilst the main interest of and contribution of the project lies in the field of museology. And yet, I have spent a significant part of my project this far trying to grasp and develop this methodology, so really maybe something else has to give if I am to ground this properly.

Another interesting comment related to my explanation of the process by way of the ‘hermeneutic spirograph’. Henrik Svarrer Larsen (himself using a super interesting figure of the interelation between space and matter to consider the dialectic of part and whole) thus pointed to the problem in placing theories, methods and actions, which are very diverse categories, on the same level, and suggested reworking the model to suggest concentric levels, seperating motors from matter. He also inquired about what was at the center – my model described a neat circle in the middle, making me aware that the spirograph design I had picked as a rough appropriation of my idea, was far to orderly and complete, and did not truly reflect the more erratic, irregular process that is really taking place. A handdrawn spirograph would be a better representation of this. Which helped me see, that although the object of study is not given as an entity at the outset, it is brought into being as well as explored by the process, in the juxtaposition and exploration of the various aspects.

Still, even with this kind of constructive and insightful response, I got this feeling of having set out to sea in a homemade dinghy, and now it was starting to leak… I also realized that I had to be proactive and do something to amend the situation (as well as snapping out of my misery). And fortunately, today gave me the opportunity to do just that.

For starters, learning from today’s paper presentations and project exhibition that this field is tremendously diverse, bringing together researchers from multiple traditions, and that my experimentations are extremely conservative when compared to, say, fungi prototyping or the provocative ‘Abort’n’Go’ device, gave me some peace of mind. Surely I too can situate my research in this field. And I won’t be alone in finding it hard to pin down what I’ve done and what it all means -it seems to be par for the course.

And then I had a good chat with Tau, my former lecturer from ITU, who is working to complete his own PhD research into design as a critical practice. As i relayed my concerns, he suggested that I spend a period as a visiting researcher at the school of design, and introduced me to Troels Degn, head of research at the school of design. He seemed positive to the idea, and saw various possibilities for connecting with both design researchers, fashion researchers and other research groups within their faculty. I will of course need to discuss this with my supervisors, but to me this seems like a very constructive prospect in terms of both mentorship and networking.

Workshop with Designmuseum Danmark
This Tuesday, the day had finally arrived for my final workshop, with participants from Designmuseum Danmark. The workshop was designed to complete my three stage research process, but as it turned out, we got so engaged in the discussion that we ended up scheduling yet another workshop in a month’s time in order to be able to continue the debate. I am really happy with this outcome, not only because it means that will get a richer/fuller material for my continued research (and will still be able to complete my research this side of summer), but also because it reflects that the discussion was valuable for the participants too.

The purpose of the workshop was to uncover the museum professionals’ view on the possibilites for and problems in framing fashion outside the museum with mobile media, as their perspectives will inform my continued research into the museological matters of concern related to this issue. (The intentions behind and design of my three stage research design is described in further detail in an earlier vlog post and in this short paper for the upcoming Nordes13 doctoral consortiumResearching museum matters through design).

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Workshop II at Designmuseum Danmark with (clockwise from left) Marie Riegels Melchior, Laura Liv Weikop, Nikolina Olsen Rule and Kirsten Toftegaard

I had therefore invited a group of people who all have a stake in the museum’s strategies for mediation of fashion: Kirsten Toftegaard, chief curator of fashion and textiles; Nikolina Olsen Rule, head of communications; Laura Liv Weikop, PhD student researching the multisensory museum, and Marie Riegels Melchior, fashion researcher and curator. Apart from drawing on their professional insights, I asked that they would also speak from their personal experience and preferences, partly because the personal perspective relates more closely to the user experience and objectives, and partly because I believe that the two can never be separated anyway, that as professionals we will always have a personal bias. Thankfully, if unsurprising given their passionate professionalism, the participants engaged wholeheartedly in the discussions, and I am really grateful for the thoughts, ideas and insights that they shared in the workshop. However, I have yet to transcribe the recordings and start my analysis, so I will not be sharing the outcome in this post.

Personas
In the workshop, I also shared some of my insights obtained in the first stage of the research process, involving prospective users via interviews, cultural probes and a workshop. In order to operationalise the user perspectives for this second workshop, I had generated personas from the four participants in Workshop I, distilling their (obviously more complex) viewpoints  into key objectives and interests. Their views, ideas and reservations were further represented in probe materials and quotes, which triggered some interesting questions and reflections from the professionals.

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Personas for workshop II, based on particpants in workshop I

Concept ‘dominos’
As for the concept sketches, devised to evoke a meaty debate, they took on a different form from what I had initially envisioned.

Having explored and considered a vast range of options for and implications of alternative forms of mediation, I found it hard to narrow down the ideas I wanted to discuss to a few completed concepts, as had been my plan. Furthermore, I was aiming to strike a balance between the need for open-endedness – heeding both the ethos of critical design and a general rule of thumb for participatory design processes stating that the rough sketch is a better starting point for criticism and co-creation than the polished prototype – and the allure and rhetorical strength of aesthetics (see Lenskjold 2009‘s descriptions of Dunne & Raby’s use of ‘visually stunning representations’ of noir designs); that is, a balance between retaining and relinquishing control over the discussion I wanted to stage. And finally, following an inspiring meeting a few months back with Isabel Froes, interaction designer and design researcher at ITU, who had also co-supervised my master thesis, I kept thinking about how the workshop design itself was also a crucial aspect of the process.

In the end, I came up with a solution which I believe served my purpose really well. Rather than designing two or three final concepts, I broke down the multiple solutions into concept elements, each represented by an image and printed onto card, which could be combined and interchanged in order to form a variety of scenarios.

As I started to work deeper into this concept, elaborating on potential scenarios and designing the cards, it suddenly struck me that what I making was maybe some sort of design game, an approach explored by Eva Brandt, amongst others. Getting very close to the workshop, I only read a single article on design games by Brandt (2006), confirming the kinship but not having the time to really let these new perspectives inform my design, but I will definitely look further into this field, to see if that may be a relevant way to contextualise and explain my concept.

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‘Concept dominos’

An example scenario could be fashion item/icon (subject for mediation) + shop (purchase as trigger situation) + QR code (as placed on sales tag) >> content of QR code? (question).

The scenario as a whole can then be used as a starting point for debate (e.g. discussing the possibility and relevance of leveraging a fashion purchase situation for museum mediation). But also the individual elements can be scrutinised or substitued, sparking new questions related to the same issue (e.g. does it matter which item or brand would the subject; what other trigger situations could be envisaged; what are the pros and cons of and alternatives for the QR code etc).

For the workshop, I had collated a series af scenarios, each exploring different situations or paradigms, but was also able to change and elaborate on them to follow the flow of the conversation. As mentioned above, this format worked well for this workshop, and I look forward to taking the discussion further in the next workshop.

Just presented my project to my institute. In preparation, I decided to do a video of the presentation rather than try to write about it, as it is centered around this diagram of my research field and research design, and therefore works better in visual form. Capturing how I see and present my project at this stage will also be useful later on, as I can compare the future development and findings to my preconceptions and outset.

Sketch ideas for cultural probes

Getting increasingly excited about the prospects of and potentials in using cultural probes over the last few weeks as I’ve started reading into the subject, and I’m now ready to start assembling my own. First step has been sketching my ideas (along with some probe standards like postcards and maps, as described by Gaver et al. and also inspired by this Flickr group and Elizabeth Goodman’s presentation on Slideshare), in order to start screening and considering their appeal, benefit, appropriacy etc. Next up I’ll turn them into rough prototypes that I can test before assembling my final probes. It’s a rapid process (and agile too, ah yes, ticking all the buzz boxes), necessarily, as I will need to have my probes ready in a week and a half, but then it has been rolling around in the back of my head for a while, so I feel fairly confident that the ideas are ripe and right. ( And absolutely sure that in hindsight I would have done something differently, whatever I do).

When I suggested the use of cultural probes in my original proposal, I guess I envisaged using them to get a glimpse into user’s everyday pursuit of fashion through media, i.e. I understood them as a potential ethnographic tool. In the meantime, however, my research interest has shifted away from user practices and media ecology and over to museological discourse and practice (as described in this post). As it turns out, this makes the cultural probe-approach all the more appropriate.

Dagny Stuedahl’s presentation at The Transformative Museum conference refered to this map of design-research types by Liz Sanders, which I found very inspiring.

Design-research types, map by Liz Sanders

It made me realize that the way I intend to include users in my study is not really participatory or even user-centered. Instead, my plan to let input from users inform an exploratory design process aimed at posing questions to and discovering problems in the use of new media platforms for museum mediation has more in common with critical design.

I was already headed this way after reading (during a truly inspiring and thought provoking PhD course on Varieties of Design Research) about Dunne & Raby’s Placebo Project as well as Mazé & Redström’s article on the Switch! programme, as the way they were using design objects or concepts to elicit thoughts and discussions really resonated with what I am hoping to achieve. I agree that design is not only about finding solutions but also about finding problems, as described by Dunne & Raby in Design Noir (here cited in Koskinen et al. (2011) : Design Research Through Practice p. 46)

Critical design, or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers

and that sometimes the imperfect is a richer source of knowledge than perfection, as suggested by Mazé & Redström:

Thus, our ambition is not to converge upon a single problem or solution, nor to provide a roadmap to a particular preferred future, but to materialize a territory of possible viewpoints as a basis for curating—and catalyzing—a conversation in the here and now.

[…]

we have wanted to encourage more nuanced or thoughtful responses to a potential object, situation or future, so as to counteract tendencies towards the commonplace and polarized responses of “I want this, where can I buy it?” or, correspondingly, “I do not like this, I’m not going to buy it!” Therefore, many of the design examples have a rather unsettling or ambivalent character, which was achieved through exploring and testing out different aesthetic strategies.

Now, I don’t know if I will or should embrace all of the thinking behind Critical Design (although I know that I need to address this thinking and my own use if it in my thesis) – so far, I have just been learning about the influences from the situationists, dada and surrealism etc. in Design Research… (above), and am curious to see how much of Dunne thinking in Hertzian Tales, which I’ve ordered form the library, I can relate to.

Either way, I’m not looking for a recipe for research or a set methodology, but rather see this as a tool in my own method. Still, I have been happy to see that my current plan for using cultural probes is more in keeping with Gaver’s original intentions, as he’s felt it necessary to explicate in the article Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty.

Appropriating the Probes into a scientific process is often justified as “taking full advantage of the Probes’ potential,” as if, by not analyzing the results of our original Probes, we had let valuable information slip away. But this misses the point of the Probes. Sure, they suggested that research questions could be packaged as multiple, rich, and engaging tasks that people could engage with by choice and over time. Beyond this, however, the Probes embodied an approach to design that recognizes and embraces the notion that knowledge has limits. It’s an approach that values uncertainty, play, exploration, and subjective interpretation as ways of dealing with those limits.

This, at least, will make it easier to explain what I’m doing and why. For a while, presenting my project to people, I’ve experienced that the has been a stronger demand for explanation, justification and critical consideration of my method than I expect to have met if, say, I’d chosen a more traditional ethnographical route. That’s been (is) hard, as I’m still feeling my way, yet, as  critical reflection on your method and your own influence on the research should be demanded of any research(er), I actually find that choosing a method that makes this demand so obvious and prominent is an advantage, as I won’t be lulled into a false sense of ‘getting it right by doing it by the book’.

Similarly, I really like that the cultural probes approach (or ‘probology’ as Gaver suggests) is so openly subjective and that the returns will defy analysis: it’s a tool for design, rather than for sociology. So rather than trying to design for and read some objective truth into my probes and the responses I will receive, I can allow my self to be creative and curious, i.e. truly explorative, which is a great freedom at this early stage of the process. And good fun too!

Of course, deciding to use design as a way of addressing a scientific question is also a bit of a gamble. Not only is the approach not tried and tested, I’m also having to consider whether I’m actually capable of pulling it off. Am I a good enough designer to make good use of this approach? Am I a designer at all? Then again, am I a good enough researcher? A proper humanist scholar, qualified to take on Latour, Adorno or whoever else I will be pulling in for my analysis and theoretical discussion? Maybe not. But I’m trying to become one, and this is the approach that I have decided is right for addressing my field of research, my project, my problems. And if I fail – or where I fail – I can only hope that maybe in this aspect to, the imperfect can be a rich source of knowledge.