Research methods for information design

Information design is a user-centered discipline. In the context of this discipline, the user (i.e., target audience, users) is someone who uses an (information) object, a service or a system in the framework of an activity in order to carry out a task. This means that conceptual and design decisions should be made according to the user’s needs. Consequently, information design problem-solving creates an interaction with the users from the start. Understanding the user’s needs and requirements is essential to structure the design problem-solving strategy and define design solution specifications. The user’s view is also used in the testing and evaluation of the solutions.

This post discusses Design probes (Mattelmäki, 2008), a methodology which can be used to explore users’ needs, gather information, and test design solutions in naturalistic conditions.

Design probes
Design probes derive from cultural probes, a methodology originally designed in the late 90s to provoke inspirational responses from elderly people in diverse communities. However, the application of this methodology is much broader. It is aimed at understanding and exploring potential participants (= users) cultural behaviours, but without creating any disruptions in their daily life or environments. Probes are a collection of assignments, aimed to seek inspirational data, rather than objective responses to specific problems.
Designers often use design probes at different stages of the design process to research and learn about user’s needs. In this way, the designer becomes a researcher but stays as an ‘outsider’ from the data collection phase. In these cases, designers do not lead conceptual design or idea development, but rather those phases are led by the users. Probing methodology can be applied at different stages of the design process, including:

  • Inspiration. Probes can gather supplementary data to support designers’ idea development and creativity
  • Information. Probes can help identify users’ needs, and specify and understand the context of use
  • Participation. Probes can give the opportunity to users to be part of the conceptual design process, and create a dialogue between designers and users
  • Testing and evaluation. Probes can be used to evaluate designs against requirements and in their intended context of use

Self-documentation kits
Self-documentation kits are designed as the qualitative method to collect data and document users’ experiences in naturalistic settings. The purpose of these kits is to examine and record users’ daily factors. Self-documentation studies emphasise users’ active role in recording material, as they are asked to experiment, then express and explicate their experiences. In addition, this method minimises the researcher/designer’s possible influence on user’s responses.

Self-documentation kit for testing probing study

Self-documentation kit for testing probing study

Tools from self-documentation kits should ask open questions encouraging users’ inspiration and playfulness. In addition, aesthetic and visual qualities are key factors, as they should engage and guide users, and ease their experience at the same time. Working materials should be included in the kit to facilitate data documentation.

Working materials of the kit and part of the self-documentation tools

Tools to collect, handle, communicate and store experiences and comments can consist of various, often physical objects and tasks referred to as self-documentation tools, e.g.diaries, cards, sketches, cameras. These tools could be printed or electronic documents with open or more structured questions where users are asked to record their feelings or activities during a certain period of time, in which a week is usually the minimum time.

Overview of the tools of the self-documentation kit used for a testing study. Cards, diaries, working materials were some of the tools included in the kit. In addition, a greeting card to be attached to a wall or window was included to make the users remember of the study. A Thank-you little present was also part of the kit.

Probing assignment
The definition of clear aims and objectives is essential to achieve efficiency in self-documentation studies. It is necessary to decide in advance what we want to learn and what to investigate. This leads to the definition of a probing assignment. To ensure that the probing assignment is suitable for the purposes of the study, it should be:

  • Challenging. Users have to propose a new solution
  • Realistic. The problem should be from a real-life situation
  • Appropriate for the users. It should be the kind of problem that would be often encountered in the users’ environments
  • Not too large. The complexity of the assignment should be in accord with the time available for the study
  • Feasible in the time available. The assignment should involve producing a solution on a level detailed enough to serve as the basis for a worthwhile analysis
  • Suited to the background/level of experience. The complexity of the assignment should be set based on the sphere of knowledge of the users.

Pilot studies are crucial to reveal obvious flaws prior to the full experience. A pilot study can result in revision of assignments to reduce ambiguity and avoid unexpected problems. It is recommended that one or two people complete the probing assignment and use the self-documentation tools in order to verify whether each of the component of the study meets the desire objectives.

Analysing and interpreting probing data
The philosophy of this type of studies is fundamentally associated with accepting ambiguity. Mattelmäki (2008) explains that to approach collected probe material the key is to plan the interpretation stage before. She suggests the definition of an interpretation model at the beginning of the study. An interpretation model is a set of agreed topics or categories for interpretation, defined in advance according to the subject and aims of the study. Interpretation topics are used to structure the data collected at the end of the study. The interpretation model enables reliable and replicable identification of findings, which qualify within each interpretation topic. Emerging insights from the probe data are classified according to those topics.

For the analysis of probe material and writing up of reports, participants’ produced material, handwriting, manner of speaking, and actual words used for descriptions and explanations should be used to create a compelling narrative of the story. Multidisciplinary teams are also an effective way of analysing probe material.

Findings from this analysis could ‘map’ and show possible risks and opportunities to support or refute initial ideas or final solutions. In addition, these data could be used for the definition of users’ profiles or personas or be used as a source of inspiration and development of new ideas.

– Baer, K., 2008. Information design workbook: graphic approaches, solutions, and inspiration + 30 case studies. Beverly (Mass): Rockport.
– Cross, N., Christiaans, H. & Dorst, K., 1996. Analysing design activity. England: John Wiley & Sons.
– Gaver, B., Dunne, T. & Pacenti, E., 1999. Design: cultural probes. Interactions, 6(1), pp.21-29.
– Mattelmäki, T., 2008. Design probes. 2nd edn.Helsinki, Finland: Publishing series of University of Art and Design


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