Experience Design Case Study


The Information Experience Design group (IED), at the Royal College of Art, investigates the way people construct, access and interpret information in the physical world, augmented environments and digital systems. IED is situated at the boundaries of design and research, and is highly inter-disciplinary. It works with ideas of the body, context and technologies (GPS and motion sensors, experimental electronics, 3D printing, prototyping and visualization). IED supports an eclectic mix of methods grounded in art-based Making as Research, such as speculative design, and cultural probes.

Key participants included: an MA student, two PhD students and a Senior Lecturer.

Research and Methods in Experience Design

The key focus of the group, as articulated by the Senior Lecturer is ‘grounding making in theory and inverting the research process’ with a focus ‘designers who read and make’. Research is strongly positioned as a part of the process of design and ‘making’. The discussions that we observed between lecturers and students during the Research methods seminars in this case study paid attention to ‘how your final design has the research embedded in it’. Lecturers described the research and the design process as ‘two sides of the same coin’ or as the Senior Lecturer MIDAS participant described it, ‘kind of a chicken and egg scenario in which research leads to design and design to research’. The focus is on understanding design as engaged in both ‘theory building’ and ‘theory testing’ through the processes of making. Focusing in on a clear research question or design problem was a starting point for the activities in the site. The site also works to rethink the notion of a research question including how it can be represented – e.g. via a visual image.

A wide range of theories, and methods were used in the site, as shown in Table 1. There is a strong interdisciplinary ethos in this case study site, with theories and methods used from Design, Art, Socio-cultural, Psychological , biological, and Physiological domains: including discourse studies, cognition, neuroscience, graphic design paradigms, history, evolution, perception studies, representation, sociology, media studies, medical-biological theories of the body, aesthetics and semiotics. Methods are similarly drawn from a very wide disciplinary reach beyond Design.

Case Study Theory Method
Discourse, Phenomenological
Design methods, hacking, making and breaking
Prototyping, Speculative design, Cultural & sensory Probes, Future Scenarios, Critical design, Curation
Participatory, Visualization, Observation
Ethnography, sensory ethnography and visual ethnography smell walks, questionnaires and survey methods, multimodal methods, spatial analysis methods
Table 1: Summary of the range of theories and methods used in the Information Design case study

There is an almost overwhelmingly eclectic and multiple and approach to methods, drawing together methods that might in other contexts be seen as incompatible. The DA case studies draw on an epistemology of Design – this is an interpretive, iterative, emergent and explicitly embodied approach. It alternates between problem definition and solution and is characterized by a practice-based approach, imagination, prototyping, and empathizing with the potential user. An epistemology of design is concerned with generating and testing solutions (hypothesis) to envision what might be, but is not yet – in contrast to a positivist approach that seeks to uncover what is. It is argued that ‘Knowledge is thus a means for design, and an end for science’. The epistemologies informing DA uses research to provoke and disturb interaction – to elicit knowledge of different ways of behaving, thinking, feeling, and to generate creative innovative relationships with the digital. A critical epistemology, the purpose of which is to challenge the social order, and give space to alternative marginal discourses, offers a potential point of connection across these different positions.

Research in IED is a design process centered on practices of making and the production of artefacts. The use of ‘data’ is seen as supporting the design process, that is knowledge is seen as ‘a means for design’: research as design, and design as research. Research is seen as an essential aspect of all stages of the design process, intimately linked with design, ‘separate but entwined’, rather than different stages. IED sees itself as grounding making in theory, and engaged in both theory building and theory testing through processes of making. Focusing in on a clear research question or design problem appears to be the starting point. One student described the challenge of designing the right tool to give people the space to think about and communicate about their body. One way she did this was to take participants for walk to observe and record how they talked about their own body and observed them in their daily life at home and how they moved. She also designed cultural probes to gain data to understand the participants’ body and how they talked about it. She designed these using body figures made from objects and drawing to see how participants drew their own body (one participant had issues and saw her body as deformed, not working properly). Much tension was expressed in the relationship between creativity, intuition, serendipity, strong conceptual ideas, processes of making, in short ‘openness’ on the one hand and, research methods, structure, evidence on the other, that are seen to constrain design.

She is showing us her sketchbooks and some photographs from the cultural probe project conducted with people with Parkinson’s disease. She talks about how ‘some people find it harder to open up than others, so designs worked differently with different people’. In one group session she says there was lots of talk about smell, which created some initial problems but then triggered conversation about the experience of losing smell because of illness. As she talks about her work, she moves between what she talks about as ‘chaos’ and then ‘structure. Talking about the cultural probes – the clay objects made within the Parkinson project she focused on the way handling these objects both express and provide different bodily experiences. In the show, visitors could lift the objects and feel and visualize an experience. In this way she talks of touch as ‘a form of a discovery process’ and foregrounds the importance of the body in terms of the immediacy of having contact with an object. She talks about her process being a mix of chaos and structure and says ‘there has to be room for accidents’: ‘Creative process can make it hard to go back to structure.’(Excerpt, Interview and observation with an MA student)

The lecturer and student participants talked of the difficulty of combining research skills with design, and ‘the place language and writing have in research’ and how to bring design practice into conversation with that as they draw on skills that have distinct origins within design and are seen as distinct from research.

Students are discussing the ‘dangers of research’ they are opposing ‘intuition’ and ‘evidence’ and during the discussion a student says ‘research can constrain design’. The students go on to discuss the place of ‘failure’ in design as compared to research and argue that it is acceptable in design but not in research. (field note excerpt, observing research seminar)

Research is primarily ‘hands on’ and situated and encompasses a very open set of practices, approaches are eclectic and multiple and not always made explicit. This reflects the highly interdisciplinary character of the staff and students (from design, computing, fine arts, bio-medicine, art therapy, anthropology), and the varied methods and approaches they bring as well as the many partnership collaborations of the group. The choice of approach is seen as dependent on the context and topic of the project. There is a strong focus on experimentation and exploration of methods, and blending and remixing methods to produce ‘custom made’ individualized approaches is the norm. A high value is placed on risk taking, serendipity, spontaneous, flexible, and openness and keeping methods in a state of productive flux.

The research is conducted in/with a range of contexts (e.g. health, museums) and participants who tend to be conceived of as co-researchers rather than participants.

A lack of methodological explicitness was a key feature of this case study, tacit knowledge pervaded the interactions that we observed, the processes were less explicit, and the structures looser. The case studies experienced tensions between the ‘openness’ of making, the affordances of the digital, and the structure of research methods. This tension, resulted in a position of either ‘no method’, ‘individual’, or ‘custom made’ methods which were seen as essential aspects of a design attitude encompassing such salient features innovation, creativity, serendipity, imagination, etc. A key point of tension in the Information Design sites is in balancing rigor, consistent methods, and replicability with creativity and serendipity: where the creative process can make it hard to maintain structure.

Within IED the sensory is a strong feature of the work on embodied interaction: sensory processes are related directly to the physical body. (e.g. touch, smell; psychological processes (memories, emotions); biological processes). The body is treated as a sensory ‘organ’ or ‘receptor’ in which the senses are a route to awakening or representing memory, and emotion. The digital is seen as having a positive role in both helping to express, enhance and measure sensory experience, and a negative role in disturbing these processes. There is methodological attention to the senses including the development of sensory probes, sensory mapping of smell and soundscapes, and tactile stories in which emotional content is materialized.

There are tensions related to the management of student identities as ‘researchers’ and ‘makers’. This tension is present in how students are talked about as being ‘good researchers’ and/or ‘good makers’, and discussion of the different positions students might have to knowledge as ‘Design researchers’ or ‘Research designers’. The Senior Lecturer notes that designers ‘don’t always feel at home with research as compared to experimentation’.

Digital Body in Experience Design

The theories and concepts applied to the body were varied ranging across phenomenological, physical, socio-psychological, physiological and biological theories. The focus is on the digital and the body as a means of accessing or re-mediating, notably via the sensory (e.g. touch, smell), people’s social, psychological, and emotional experiences. Objects play a central role in relation to the body either as artefacts mediating touch experiences, or objects to move and interact with through a wider range of actions. The ways in which the body and embodiment featured in IED emphasized the individual, physical and the biosocial character of the bodily experiences but generally in the context of a social setting. It takes a holistic view of the digital body, mind and body are seen as intimately connected with the body seen as a way to get to the mind, it is not a regularized zoning of the body into parts, the digital and virtual are not firmly distinguished between. The focus is on individual bodies in context.

I am going to make some objects that will be hybrid of things. I am going to make the physical object, to make the object look strange, two objects merged into one, so it is like there is a familiar object but at the same time it doesn’t make sense. This is an experiment because with 3D printing you are going to get some errors, some texture, increase or decrease. I will use this aspect to make those objects with the same material and make my collection: a series of imaginative objects. I hope it will look like a fragment like someone could have found it 100 years ago and digged it out of the ground. (MA student Interview)

Within the Design case studies the body is treated in an integrated manner without designated zones as it allows the ‘holistic’ body to be brought into focus, and the digital tools are less defined in relation to the body, which is essential for investigating emotion and affect within these disciplines. There is no marking of the distinctions between the physical, and digital/virtual body – another aspect of fragmenting the body.

Case Study Digital Body
Digital is back-grounded
Critical perspective
Focus on innovation
Mobile, GIS, sensors, experimental electronics, 3D printers (wax, resin, paper)
Embodied social, psychological, and emotional experience
Bodily interaction
Metaphors, body as: sensory organ, site of identity, vessel, interface, information environment, computational system
Table 2: Summary of key digital technologies and concepts of body observed in Experience Design case study

Many metaphors of the body circulate: the body is talked of as a sensory organ, a site of identity, a vessel, an interface, an information environment, a computational system. Bodily interaction is explored across a range of public spheres of engagement; most notably, health (e.g. design related to various health conditions, reproductive health and disabilities) and museums (e.g. interpreting objects, and spaces). In an extended Fieldwork interview, a PhD student commented:

‘The body is not a matter of concern… It was not necessarily about what can I do with the body. The body is the medium for that subject that is appropriate, my personal interest is coming from bio-medicine and human futures in a way, this is what interests me, the body is naturally the stage for, an impulse for my emotions, in a way, so that’s why it relates to that but I think embodiment doesn’t equals body. But yeah, Fertilised Futures [a video piece made by the student], sure if you are carefully watching there is not even a body in there, its only hands. It is not an object, it is something externalised.’

Throughout her work, ideas and questions of the body as absent or somehow made newly are a strong theme.

Digital bodily interaction features in the IED fieldwork materials, and in the projects and design artefacts produced in the site. The digital is consistently talked of as having long complex history within the site, and as both resolving and creating problems for designing interaction and experience.

“The physical world was quickly inhabiting the virtual; at the same time, thanks to sensors and ever-shrinking computers, the digital was quickly and quietly inserting itself into the real world.”

While the digital is key it is not explicitly prioritized in the IED group, there is a degree of tension about its place in the processes of design. The digital culture is associated with creativity and making within a DIY context with makers in control of the process. There is an emerging sense that the digital is no longer something special but rather just another kind of material to work with. A high value is placed on a conceptual idea and the importance of not overpowering concepts with the digital is frequently discussed. A range of technologies are taken up and put to work in playful ways to challenge, critique or subvert everyday conceptions of the digital often via imagined digital future scenarios. Work on /with the digital is inserted in a strong critical perspective, it is understood as both ‘troubling’, a medium for interaction, a tool to reinvigorate the ‘lost’ aspects of sensory or emotional experiences, and as part of human mind. The use of technology to critique and reflect on itself was apparent in some of the (conceptual) pieces made by students in the work in progress show.

Crossings between the physical and the digital are managed and valued differently across the case study sites. Moving from the physical to the virtual/digital back to the physical is a key aspect of how the body is engaged with through the digital across several of the sites and these different trajectories: shaping ideas of the body and the digital with implications for methodologies. Understanding the sociological and cultural underpinnings of these practices helps to inform how these methods may or may not be used across the arts and social sciences and conditions in which they might be productively combined.

This is an experiment. Explained [to technician] what I want to get and he said this is really exciting because with 3D printing you are going to get some errors, and you can make some parts bigger, smaller, add some details, some texture, increase or decrease – I’m not sure I will play too much as I just want to get these things of ‘as one’ – but I will welcome any kind of error or accident in the process… it is the process of printing it that will make it ONE. (MA student, interview)

Much of the work within IED both uses and critiques physical-digital crossings. Projects and exhibited objects encompassed a range of forms from physical, physical-digital, to virtual. There is a strong focus on bringing together the synergies of the virtual, and the physical in which the body is linked to the digital in ways that create seamless boundaries between body and technologies. For others the physical sharable object is crucial and is seen to afford specific kinds of interactions (touch, handling, tactility) related to memory, formation and emotion that are seen as lost by the digital.

Physical-digital Trajectories is used here to refer to whether and how, the CS participants worked across physical, digital or virtual domains, or vice versa in relation to embodiment How Physical-digital Trajectories featured in each site was related to the conception of the digital/body, the research practice and time scales of each. These trajectories are central to the Design case study. Digital Arts research practitioners (makers) spoke of their need for a physical output/object to think through design and to communicate with. In particular, materiality (texture, sensory features, handling) and movement were seen as central and better articulated through the physical. A purely digital realm was associated with loss: ‘I think I’d be quite scared to be fully digital, lose everything to digital?’ (MA Design participant).

The body is clearly central in RCA work, but talked about in terms of the kinds of interactions supported by the body – primarily sensory and touch forms of interaction that access emotional, social human experiences, as well as experiences of space.

Focusing in on her practice the body is a central aspect of her work. She talks of the ‘body as a ‘window’ onto people’s experience of being and health’. More specifically, throughout her practice there is a strong focus on ‘touch’ both as a sensory experience, a communicational tool, and a data collection method. She has focused in on the body as a sensory organ, a site of exploration towards understanding her participants’ experiences. She talks about the body, with a particular focus on the sensory experience of touch, as enabling the production of tactile stories, that is touch based experiences that ‘open up’ memories to be enlivened, render visible untold ‘taboo’ or loses (such as the lose of mobility or loneliness), that is she understands touch as having the potential to re-mediate or rearticulate experiences that are often hard to get at. She talks about touch – mediated through objects and artefacts, as having the potential to stimulate thinking and conversation – narrative dialogues for her research. (Fieldnote excerpt, Design MA student)

The body is strongly related to touch, sensory and objects. RCA terms focus more on aspects of sensory experiences: touch, tactile, experience, and objects.

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