Design Research: York University Public Spaces

Design Research:

Design research as a developing discipline in the field of design has expanded primarily from architecture and industrial design to many other areas of design. The design research methods range from systematic data collection to the specialized, user-centric design approach that incorporated data collection, cognitive scienceethnography, library science, and more.

My understanding of this course is it helps us to understand the importance of design research, to learn its initiatives and major concepts that are involved in the research process, and to utilize different design research methods to find the insights from the users. Finally, with the collected information, we learn to analyze the meaning of the users’ insight, in order to provide the most reliable and honest findings that can contribute to the process of the design. Moreover, this course also challenges us to work with the participants ethically, to create the planning effectively, teamwork, and to pay attention to details. It gives us the opportunity to practice some fundamental research concepts and techniques to prepare us for our further research and career choices as new design researchers.

Co-design workshop:

The goals of designing the workshop:

The co-design workshop is an extension of our design research about the York University public spaces, and how these spaces affect and influence the users. The goal of this research practice is to find the insights and feedback from a group of users ranging from Students to teaching faculty members, to inquire about users’ physical and emotional comfort in the elected spaces, to reflect on the public and private social needs of the users in the context of our current cultural sphere.

This co-workshop is aiming to find insights from the users through group activities and discussion. This design method is effective for a group of users, the researcher can gather information more effectively within a shorter period of time. This method can also be used as a “design research through a making process” to investigate the users’ material and cognitive needs in a design process. 

Co-Design is a Human-Centered Design and Social Responsible design, the challenge of this design method is how to facilitate the participants to express themselves freely. The researcher’s role is to design a process and utilize the resources to help the participants to discover their experience in-depth in a collaborative approach. In order to study the findings for a comprehensive analysis of the user experiences in relation to the design.

The questions we have engaged in our process:

1. What do we want to learn about?

In this inquiry, we did not want to assume the answers. The goal of our research is to find out as much as what users feel about the York public space, specifically the outdoor grass area, the Scott Library, and the inside of the TAl building from a broad sense, then we can narrow it down to categories for analyzing the finding through the users’ insights.

2. How do we use group dynamics to learn about the insights?

Our approach in this direction is to use hands-on activities, in the most possibly relaxing and fun way to encourage the group dynamics in participation and discussion. The Q and A section are embedded in the activities and discussions to ensure the participants don’t feel they are questioned, but engaging in a friendly conversation.

3. How do use design exercises to engage in group dynamics?

Attention to detail! In order to have our activities flow smoothly engage the group dynamics. We have planned our co-workshop by breaking it down into minutes. The first section of the co-workshop consists of a 10 minutes sign-in process and welcoming statement;  a quick introduction to our team members and a brief of our workshop, this will take no more than 5 minutes.

The second part of our workshop is the warming up section, we will use the next 10 minutes to work as an icebreaker by picking up a random keyword from a hat. We will ask the participants to read the keyword and introduce themselves, briefly asking about their opinions about the keyword. The purpose of this step is to warm up the participants and get them familiar with each other.

Co-Design Workshop Activities:

The following section contains the major activities in this workshop. We have designed four different activities:

1. Voting: 

gameplay that we ask the participants to stand in a line with their eyes closed.

The facilitator (Egor) will make a statement, the participants will step forward if they agree with the statement, otherwise, move backward. The result will unveil when we ask participants to open their eyes. This simple exercise will give us the opportunity to get some honest feedback on the questions we have in a fun, playful way since the participants do not aware of the other’s choices until they open their eyes. Then we will have a 10 minutes discussion about what we see as a group. This activity will take 20 minutes in total.

2. Prioritizing Images:

This activity will put the participants in charge to put ten YorkU places consisting of different pictures in sequence. We will divide the participants into 2 groups. Each group member will get 10 color-coded images, and they will pin them on the display boards in order.

“Image is worth than a hundred words,” by displaying the priorities in the choice of the images, we can have a quick glance at which spaces are more popular amongst the participants. The following discussion will be facilitated by the choice of the images. As the facilitator, I will casually chat with the participants to get more insights about their choices, in support of my team members who take care of other important duties.

3. The ideal floor plan:

We will give the design authority to the participants! In two groups of four members each. We will ask the participating teams to design their dream space layout on Butch paper in a ten minutes period. In this exercise, we will encourage the participants to think outside the box, and to have fun with their wildest imaginations. The purpose is to dig into the hidden desire of what is the dream space for the participants without conventional restraints. Of course, we decide the only architect in our group, Andrea is the ideal choice to be the facilitator of this exercise. The following ten minutes is the discussion about the layouts from each group.

4. Ideation Game:

The light bulb goes off!  In this exercise, the participants have divided into two groups again. Each group will pick up a random topic from a hat. The questions will be displayed on the screen, the participating groups will design their solution to the scenario. The key element in this game is not to draw the solution to the problems, but the goal is to open the group discussion. Through the discussion, we can find more interesting approaches to problem-solving, that will give us more insight and knowledge of how participants deal with the scenarios. Carmela puts her creative director expertise into this exercise to facilitate the participants.  

Each of these exercises takes twenty minutes to complete, we also planned to have ten minutes of backup time, besides the closing and thanking routine in a workshop. The total estimated time for this workshop is about 1.5 hours. In this short period of time, each minute is an opportunity for us the gather information and learn from the participants. Pay attention to details from ordering refreshments and preparing supplies, signing consent and greeting people, observing the participant’s comfort level, expression, and body language, managing group participation and controlling the process without overpowering it, and encouraging discussion but not being pushy. More importantly, to blend all of these details into a smooth and fun process to ensure both the researchers and participants are benefited from this Co-Design workshop.

The Co-design Workshop & the Feedback

We managed to meet with the other group members to do a dry run for our workshop. In this process, we are able to exercise a few of our designed activities and generate some interesting findings. 

I facilitated the Prioritizing Image exercise, to our surprise. The result is quite different from each group member’s choice. The over result does not show a solid common denominator, some of the choices are totally opposite. This result gives us an insight that everyone in York has different tastes and requirements to their needs. However, it seems everyone put the outdoor open area in higher priority, this shows the need for the leisure time in students’ lifestyles. They always need a space to have a break in their busy lifestyle, even if they don’t utilize this space much.

In the following discussion, the members’ feedback has given us the following insights:

  1. A variety of choices in food and services is important;

  2. The environment noises have an important effect on the shared spaces;

  3. The lighting condition creates a different atmosphere in space; The large open space in the buildings feels empty and less utilized, it can make people feel cold and isolated.

From the feedback, we feel what the insights really tell us is the students need a dynamic environment that is convenient, diverse, and functional to the student lifestyle. They are not just wanting the spaces to satisfy their physical needs, but also bringing in comfort to their senses. Lighting and background noise plays a big part in the public spaces, they are connecting to the students’ comfort, safety, and sense of well-being.

The ideal space layout design was facilitated by Andrea. In this exercise, the participants are encouraged to design their ideal space without any conventional rules. They can put in anything they desire for space. It was very interesting to see that participants had created the idea space such as Jacuzzi, Netflix Theatre, game station, social area and lounge, pet zone, buffet table and yogurt bar, adjustable chair with laptop, also a newborn supply store, large glass walls with lighting control shades. They also emphasized that food should be free.

The feedback we received from the participants regarding their choices is that they want their study environment to be as fun and comfortable as possible, somehow even being luxurious. They want the ideal space free from financial constraints, and stress; they need natural lights, animals, a social environment, and friends. So when they come to school, they feel like taking a vacation and never want to leave.

Obviously, this is an ideal reality. However, from this feedback, we can see the stress in the current students’ life: From the financial burden to the pressure to work and study, space should at least not remind them of all of these. Students want space for them to relax, give them choices and support their lifestyle in order to help them to concentrate on their studies.

On the contrary, I also found an interesting point from this exercise. All of the ideal choices are commercially influenced. This tells me that students adapt to consumer culture so much and their way to relax is by relying on service-based consumerism. However, students’ feedback also reflected their social ideal that freedom and equality are highly desired, but they are inevitably dominated by the consumerism-based marketplace.

Research Interviews:

Interview one participant at a time v. group discussion.

By comparing the previous research method of interviewing individual participants, the group discussion is much faster to help the researcher for getting a general sense in the researched area. It covers more range of a topic, the researcher can investigate a group of people and quickly see the common elements and differences.

Individual interviews can help the researcher to have a more in-depth discussion of some specific areas. The researcher can take the opportunities in an interview to investigate the individual choices and get specific feedback from the participants in relation to the individual’s lifestyle. It takes the approach of getting insights from learning the participant’s autobiography and personal story.  In comparison, the group discussion focuses on a bigger picture, it gives the opportunity for the researcher to investigate the topics in a social aspect in a democratized fashion, by listening to the participants to discuss the topics in exchange ideas.

Technically, the researcher has more control over the discussion with participants in the personal interviews. The research takes a more leading role to direct the questions and shift the direction. However, in the group discussion, the researcher often takes a passive role to facilitate the process, the researcher focuses on encouraging discussion and documenting the data.

Being a lead interviewer or notetaker vs. facilitating the process.

My experience in the personal interview as an interviewer is while I need to have the structure in mind, I also need to improvise the unexpected changes during the discussion. The interviewee may or may not be interested in a topic that I want to investigate more, so I need to revise the question in different directions to get the interviewee to open up to the topic. Being too pushy about a topic may create the opposite effect to make the interviewee uncomfortable. I think an important factor of being an interviewer is building trust and a comfort zone with the interviewee, so the interviewee and express themself freely. My attempt was to make the interview a casual friendly chat, the challenge is how to quickly build a friendly atmosphere and gain the interest of the interviewee to talk. While paying attention to body language and keeping eye contact, the brain needs to work fast to figure out the next step to lead the process.

Note-taking may not an easy part as it requires a fast typer.  In the interview, writing down the important points and keywords could help increase the process of documentation. Audio recording and subsequent transcripts after the interview can be extremely useful. As a note-taker, paying attention to the silent time and writing down the notes for the interviewee’s impression can also provide some important visual information in relation to the topic.

As the facilitator of the group discussion. I take on a more passive role as an organizer, observer, and sometimes a mediator to manage, encourage or soften the discussion. My experience in this role is that I need to help the participants to enjoy the process, relax and speak freely in the discussion. In case of different opinions that may have a potential conflict, it is important to de-escalate the argument. Lucky, our process was fun and enjoyable, it makes my job much easier. However, time management is more challenging in this case, as it sometimes takes more time for the activities to finish and some small issues encounter such as malfunctioning markers. Overall, preparation and paying attention to details is the key to making the activity run smoothly

The impact of more hands-on, activity-based exercises Q&A conversation.

The hands-on activities focus on using the experience to trigger and stimulate the discussion in order to get insights. The visual elements from the hand on activities provide some complimentary facts to the unconscious side of the participants’ experience. Through the hands-on activities, we can have an overall investigation of the interesting areas. It can help the research to discover some hidden insights from the participants’ input and discussion.

The Q & A conversation can seek more individual, specific insights from the participant. It is more direct to obtain insights from the interviewee. Personal rapport can develop during the Q & A  and lead the process to a more in-depth conversation.

To compare both research methods, the hands-on exercises method help to seek more broad insights, and the Q and A method bring in more specific and individual insights for the research questions.

Design research helps designers and researchers to theorize users’ experiences toward a specific design goal. It widened designers’ views about design from design functions, aesthetics, and commercial applications to the research-based, user-centric approach for more sustainable and user-friendly designs. To me,  design research is a part of a design process that involves participatory endeavors and user inputs. Through the creative co-design process, design research would help designers to get useful insights and feedback from users. To extend the design research into my areas of practice, the participatory methods can be combined with co-design workshops, to assist users in the DIY projects by utilizing airbrush design as a micro-community based platform, to imagine what the Italian design thinker Ezio Manzini suggests that design is the social innovation where everyone designs. Design research is a part of exploration in learning how design affects our life and thinking in both social and cultural spaces.