Design & Behavioural Science: It’s Time

Understanding the glass, whether its full or not, and why it matters (CC-Flickr SOCIALisBETTER)

What good is design and why should non-designers care? These are questions that designers ask a lot. As one who has developed his practice of design within public health (the behavioural sciences focus), I come from a world where the term “design” is viewed with disdain at worst or indifference or curiousity at best. The concept doesn’t resonate with that audience…yet.

As a designer of systems to promote the health and wellbeing of individuals through helping them solve complex problems individually and groups I find myself attracted to others who try to do the same, even if it is often from a perspective and focus other than health. That gets me into the world of graphic and industrial designers, interaction designers, and now those who use the term social designers or humanitarian designers.

Not surprisingly perhaps, this interaction brings with it much learning for me as it enables me to receive the gifts that diversity brings. The language, the culture and the context of design in design programs, studios and conversations is thrilling for me. As business has joined the conversation, that diversity has increased and programs like OCADU’s Masters in Strategic Foresight seem to capture this type of interaction between what might be called traditional and non-traditional design space.

From this vantage point I see a lot and being an ‘outsider’ provides a wider-angled lens on such phenomenon (while those inside have more telephoto lenses to enable them to see deeper, to extend the metaphor). There are a few things I see through this lens:

1. Designers care a lot about what others think they do and spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with definitions and terms used to describe their craft. On one hand, this is useful and encouraging to see such interest in communicating with the world the value of design, but what could be viewed as attention to education could also be seen as a sense of drifting priorities and a lack of focus or confidence within the field. This intense interest in using rhetoric to show the world designs value, exemplified in the videos, myriad books on design processes, thinking, types, and models is all useful to novices and getting the word out, but at some point the data need to speak.

2. Designers use the concept of “interdisciplinary” very differently than I do. I thought public health had a case of the interdisciplinary-itis, but clearly its endemic across different disciplines and fields and that the way it is used is very different. I already knew this from my own research that has looked at how interdisciplinary researchers collaborate on science problems, but it never ceases to amaze me how the terms get used in other fields and contexts. In design, interdisciplinary often means mixing graphics design folk with industrial designers and visual artists. Taken one step further and you get the IDEO model that expands this to include different fields like anthropology and engineering. This is much closer to what I think of when I consider interdisciplinary, but that is much more rare than I originally thought I’d find in the design world.

3. Designers have a strange relationship with psychology. The use of the word “empathy” is far more common in design than in public health. That excites me for design, but saddens me that it is so rare in public health, but I digress… Yet, while designers are great at getting to know their audience, the methods they use are rather small. Much of it relies on ethnographic study and (from what I can tell) fuzzy qualitative data collection. The methodology is not problematic, but the execution might be. In academia, particularly academic psychology (where I was trained), we are encouraged to explore two things in great depth when appraising others’ research: 1) the rigor of the application of method and analysis, and 2) the use of theory. In both cases I have found design research lacking. What is the theory of change or design used? How was the data analyzed? Why was [this] method used over [that] one? I rarely get good answers to this — at least the kind that my academic colleagues would appreciate.

Designers need behavioural scientists to help them step up their game as much as the world needs designers to help behavioural scientists step up theirs.

Many of the reasons I love design is that it goes to places where academia fails to look and where the public often lives. Many of the design methods and processes like sketching user experiences, empathic research and engaged interaction with clients are things that public health and other fields need to do. Many academics are so far removed from the real world that we’ve left little reason for the public to WANT to engage us. But the downside is that we’ve taken many of the theories, methods and tools that we’ve honed over thousands of trials and studies and produce some good data and synthesis with us. Designers need us to help them step up their game as much as we need designers to help behavioural scientists step up theirs.

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