Collaboration in the conception of design research projects

Most research groups in applied science want to operate in the midst of society. And like most, we aim to be on top of new developments and engage professionals, students, teachers, and the public in general in collectively shaping tomorrow’s society. In the case of our research group Human Experience and Media Design, this means shaping the design of tomorrow’s digital world. To this end, design research is a strong approach for its missionary character, because it revolves around a core of flux and imagination. In many projects, we manage to engage all kinds of stakeholders: creative sessions to co-create future visions and solutions that solve the problems of today. 

But there are two problems with our approach. First: no one is watching. The small-scale character of many design research projects engages a select group of invited representatives of groups. So, they are participatory within the project, but not within society. Second: the participants who are being involved are quite late to the party. We send out our invitation when the project has started and when we are up to speed. In a typical project, this is two years after the conception of the research. In the highly dynamic field of media design we felt we needed to amp up. Thus, early 2020, we launched the two-year project “The public missions of Human Experience and Media Design”, as an attempt to mitigate these weaknesses of conventional design research methods. 

Borrowing from innovations in journalism, the core of our new approach was for our researchers to adopt a more open and collaborative attitude to the fuzzy front end of their research. This way, they would be able to connect with the different relevant stakeholders at a time when their research interests were still nascent, while stimulating partnership and coalition forming long before formulating a research project. Researchers were asked to formulate a question of public interest in the area of media design and right away get into the world with an explorative mindset and reach out actively to exchange thoughts with different groups: from students and academics to people in the street, to experts from science and business. These exchanges were to be recorded with the help of young journalists, in order to create short online audiovisual and textual content: innovative student work, showcases of new design, critical approaches by experts. Our researchers would share and reflect on these voices publicly and continuously through their stories, and invite audiences to comment and give input. Ideally these encounters would again bring new leads to follow, expanding the network. 

During the first iteration, running from Oktober 2020 to June 2021, we explored the field of databias and discrimination by AI, virtual reality for children, and on the user experience of recommendation systems such as Spotify. In the second year, from October 2021 to June 2022, we focused on the influence of online bots, the rise of speech interfaces, and the possibilities for users to adapt outcomes of algorithms.

The fast production cycles that we adopted led to items of varying quality. Some were very good, others were merely mediocre. Also, publicly giving center stage to curiosity instead of expertise, put the researchers involved out of their comfort zone. However, the approach did have the impact we had envisioned. Firstly, researchers built a network and attracted the interest of previous ‘outsiders’ that we would not have included if we hadn’t been exploring publicly. Researchers shaped their ideas quicker and we managed to set a research agenda much faster. Secondly, it impacted different stakeholders from both industry and academics. Not only were the questions presented considered “challenging” by the stakeholders, and would the encounters in the long run have a gradual impact in their own work, it also sparked collaboration. As a direct result, two missions led to grant proposals and included the perspectives of stakeholders that participated in the missions. Thirdly, on an organizational level, our research group became more visible and accessible by connecting earlier with education. It was inspiring to work directly with students and realize that so many are motivated to take major steps towards change. For them, the missions served as a platform for their ideas on designing the future.

We visualized the revisited front-end phase of our research in a boundary object. Loosely inspired by the Mobius Strip, the object represents the sprouting collaborations with various clusters of stakeholders at the conception of research. The open and breathing character of the object and its changing nature depending on your own viewpoint, reflects the evolving nature and open future of the various connections. We can safely say that pulling participation to the front end of our research changed the way we create our research projects. The missions helped towards creating valuable design together and in continuous conversation with the industry, researchers, students, and users.