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Liz Sanders

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­Can you tell us about your background, education and how you got involved with design?

 

I became involved with design unexpectedly, my background is in psychology and anthropology. I have a PhD in psychology and so I was trained to be an academic. But a job posting came up, it was in a design firm at the time and they were looking into experimenting, this was long time ago- 30 years ago, they were looking for a scientist and they were interested in exploring interdisciplinary design. And so I got the interview, I got the position and I started then as an experiment in a design firm, and my role was to figure out what anthropology and psychology could offer to the design process and since then I have worked in design with designers.

Liz Sanders


In your book, you explain how the design process is changing, can you explain how it is changing and where do you see design process comes into play in this newly formed process?

 

Ok, I’ll start with the design process. 30 years ago when I got hired for this experiment, the focus of my work was helping the designers get input for their designs from people. So, my role was evaluating what the designer had come up with and connecting the designers to the people who might use their products. But over time and as I worked with designers, my work started moving further and further into what I call the front end. So when I talk about the front end of design I mean the part of the design process where you are figuring out what to design. So originally my focus was on how do we design it?, what does it look like?, how do we make it work?, The designers wanted to make sure that people liked it and understood it.  The switch in the design process then was to focus on figuring out what people actually need and want even before designing the product, for example. So that is what I mean by the big shift in the design process. So, I switched from being the hand holder (of designers and end-users), to taking the tools that the designers used and modifying them so that non-designers could play with their visual materials and their designerly ways of doing things. So, I had to modify the materials for non-designers because, for example, visual communication designers really only use beautiful images. But when you work with everyday people you need all kind of images, some are beautiful and some are not. It was similar with the industrial designers. They did their thinking with 3 dimensional models and they talked to each other through these models. The things they talked about were things like where is the fan? and where does the air flow through the product? Ordinary people are not interested in those things.  They are more interested in how do I start this product?, how do I use it?  So, I figured out how to give materials and tools to non-designers so that they could provide input to the design process from their point of view. So I think  that moving the action to the front end and then bringing the end users into the design process as co creators, those were the two big shifts that I have seen over those years.

There is a big difference between academia and real practice. There are many companies that do not have the time or budget to spend on design research. What do you think about that? How can we as designers encourage them to invest in design research?

 

I would say first of all you need to start very small. Instead of trying to get a budget to add that to the process, just go out on your own and get rich data from 2-3 people. So, start to make it happen. The other thing is to identify people within your organization who are interested in learning and bring them into this process as well. So you might lead the effort to give it a try, but it would be even better if you could get somebody from engineering or from new business development to help you make the plan for how to do it. So start involving them and start very small. Because it does take a while to get to the point where you have what you feel comfortable as a decent budget.

What do you think are the obvious benefits of doing research for the companies?

 

Spending the money upfront can save a lot of time in the end. If you do some research upfront it might help your whole product development process to be better focused. So, you might spend some upfront, but you don’t need to spend that much on design exploration because you already have a focus. I think that can also help prevent big errors. Because if you are designing and developing something that people don’t really need, you have spent a lot of money developing it and then you have to spend a lot of money convincing people that they need it, which is not generally a good use of money. So, what I am saying is that, the more you can do upfront, the more relevant your approach could be after that.

Can you tell us about co-creation and co-design and your innovation process with the maketool method?

 

Yes, maketools refers to what I mentioned earlier when I talked about putting design tools in hands of non-designers. Maketool describes these tools for making. The making takes different forms. Some of the maketools are 3D things, some of them are 2D materials that then people put together to express their ideas about future experience – what they wish they could have or do. There is a simple model towards the back of the book (Convivial Toolbox) where I introduce the making telling and enacting model that describes co-creation in an iterative path. If you use all three of those (the making, telling and enacting) it gives all kinds of people a chance to participate in a way that easiest for them and it gives people an opportunity to imagine and play out future experiences. So, for example, in a project after people get a chance to express their thoughts and frustrations about the current product, or the current experience, we might engage them in an set of making, telling, and enacting experiences. We would give them tools to make something perhaps and then give them a chance to use what they have made to pretend or act out  how that product might improve their lives or how they would use it together. We might also have them tell or talk about what it is that they have created. So, it is a cycle of various ways of participating that let people not only imagine what could happen in the future but communicate it to others. This (making, telling, enacting) enhances people’s ability to do all of that collaboratively. Whereas 10 years ago a lot of my work involved individuals making collages or Velcro models and explaining them, today it is more likely that we have teams of people making things together, acting together, and then telling that story as collectives.

 

Liz Sanders

 

Liz Sanders

 

Liz Sanders

 

Liz Sanders

Liz Sanders

Is it better to do it in a collective way rather than individual?

 

It depends on the project.  Sometimes you have to start with individuals because you are talking about memories or experiences and those are individual things. Often you start with individuals, they express their thoughts, frustrations and their dreams and then we put them together into teams. Because ultimately whatever you are designing is going to be used by groups of people. More and more, I am using the process with teams of people where they come from different backgrounds, and so working with not just interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary teams. My work at the university now is focusing on transdisciplinarity, which is exploring the ground between the disciplines. And the maketools then are the language that nobody owns but everybody can use. So the maketools have been very helpful in bringing people together from different domains.

What are the main challenges in using co-creation or co-design method?

 

I think the main challenges out in practice are the mindsets of people who believe that all people not creative. So, I think it is mainly an issue of mindset.

And that varies a lot between different countries.

What about people you are working with.  How do you bring them into the mode to come up with creative ideas and communicate them?

 

One thing I do is to spend a lot of time getting them ready for the session. So the process would be first identifying them and then giving them homework. In practice I have the advantage of having a budget. And so we can pay people. So, people agree to do this and we pay them sufficiently. So when we give them homework that takes 45 minutes to an hour, they do it. The homework helps them get ready for the session because it gets them to start thinking about the experience and starts getting them curious about why are you asking me all of these open-ended questions? So part of it is getting them ready and the other part of it is because they are getting paid so they are more cooperative.  But sometimes I am working with nurses in a hospital and they are not getting paid and we are working them over their lunch time, and they barely had time to do their homework, but they are very interested in impacting the future of hospital experience. So sometimes the level of interest helps. If people don’t know why they are in the session or how this is going to impact their future, they may be hesitant. So, there are a lot of factors why it can be difficult to work with some people in co-creation.

The other challenge is bridging the gap between the research phase and the concept development phase. How do you transfer research insights into design requirements?

 

In my practice, the people who will be developing the concepts are on the research team, so that helps. It does not solve the entire problem, but if you have the ideators not just being apart of the research, but helping to plan the research and to prepare the tool kits, I find that usually there is not that much of a gap. The hardest thing is to get designers to sit and listen and not start ideating right away. But if you have a separate research team from the design team and the designers are going to be taking the material from researchers then it is real challenge to transfer the information. I have been involved with that a lot, and I think whoever is going to be involved in the design process and take the ideas further needs to get immersed into what has been found. It can be a large and extensive workshop just to make sure the designers don’t only hear the final insights but they actually see the people and hear what they have to say. So I have found that being very careful of about how to transfer the data is essential. But the ideal is to have the people carry the information forward and even there it can be challenge, because there is so much information.

How far do you think the Co-design methods goes into the design process. Do you bring the users back after concept development and involve them in concept evaluation and refinement?

 

Ideally we would bring the users back but we don’t always get to. Ideally what I would do is to bring those people back and also introduce some more people who have not been part of the process as well. Because people who have been involved are going to love their own ideas. But in practice, most of my work has been in the fuzzy front end and we are not always in contact with those people a year or so later for the evaluation part, although ideally we should be.

In your book you are talking about moving designers from being experts and creators to facilitators of conversations to help people bring their ideas to life? Although you were also mentioning in some domains such as architecture or fashion designers should stay as experts. Can you talk a little more about that and what kind of training should be included in schools to prepare designers for these new roles?

 

I will tell you about the approach I am taking at the undergraduate level at The Ohio State University. Design students there get three full semesters of design research. So, I introduce each of the designers to two different mindsets about design research; one is about designing for people, which is the more traditional approach where the designer is the expert and also designing with people. So they get hands-on experience with both approaches. First the sophomores get the experience with designing for people, because I think the traditional mode is easier to teach. You get all the basics in there. Then as Juniors they start leaning about designing with people. Throughout those courses they reflect on what makes sense for them. Because I think we need both. It depends on what field are you going into and how you want to work. So I make sure that students get hands-on experiences along both tracks and they get to think about whether they see themselves as experts, is that how they want to work? Do they want to design for other people because they know what is cool?, There are jobs and companies that want that type of a designer. Others find that they love the designing with people more, so hopefully by the time they are done with their undergraduate Design degree, they understand which approach works for them and it helps them focus their job search. And I know that a number of them end up being not designers but they do design research as opposed to design when they graduate.

What do you think are the most important skills to be a good co-designer and facilitate those sessions with people?

 

I think that respect for all people as creative people is critical and the ability to listen, to sit back and to take their ideas. I think the challenge is how do design students use their creative abilities to create materials for non-designers that help them be creative? For some people it’s like “Wow! That’s really interesting”. But for a designer who wants to be that expert or star designer, that is not what they want to do. And hopefully design students will learn what makes sense for them through these different experiences. I think some people are born to work in co-creation and others aren’t, and that’s fine.

 

Have you ever had any working or teaching experiences in Middle East, Asia or any other place that design research does not have a particular place in the product development process? And how do you think we can create that place and make it more important?

 

I have been in a lot of parts of the world, but I haven’t worked in all those places to be immersed in all the experiences. But one thing that I have noticed is that the Northern European, Scandinavian countries have been doing participatory design for years and years. And when you go there it is a part of culture, it is part of  the mindset. A few years ago, I started going more to places like Spain, and it was very interesting that they were much slower to embrace co-creation, but much quicker to bring it on. Once they got into it, and I have done workshops there, they are so fast. Of course in a workshop that is about learning co-creation, you will find people who already know they want to work that way, but I think there is something else about the Southern European culture. They are very open, and friendly and people oriented and they learn co-creation so quickly. So I would imagine some of it is culturally dependent in terms of how quickly it can be picked up and spread. But again I emphasize -- start small with real examples and be patient. Spain is the only country I have seen where it just flies so quickly. But in most other situations, you are butting up against people who are running the companies very successfully with an expert mindset. Another thing I have noticed over the years is that females seem to understand co-creation immediately and intuitively. I think some males don’t necessarily get it right away although the younger males get it much faster. Men my age, I wouldn’t even try to convince them, I just let it go, it is not a good use of my time to argue because they don’t think it makes sense. So work with young people, work with the female leaders of the organization who once they hear about co-creation, they will say “yes, of course”. Those are just some rough patterns I have seen over the years.

 

 

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