"Stop Tossing, There is no Wall!" – On Design Research

In the last weeks, there has been quite a buzz around a new browser plugin called Cortex, which makes sharing online considerably easier and faster than it used to be: Simple press and hold, and a multi-part donut appears where you can choose to share the content on, e.g., Twitter or Facebook.


When I worked on the Pinpoint project three years ago, we felt that it would be a good idea to integrate Pinpoint functionality in regular productivity applications to give some of the support without having to launch the all-screen visualization. Our design for this micro-version of Pinpoint looked like this, and it even made it into our academic paper on the work.


Why do I bring this up? Is this a sulky attempt to point out that “I was there first”? Of course not. Cortex and micro-Pinpoint are both simple applications of the pie-menu idea, which was first published in the early 1980s and is well known to provide a nice and efficient flow of action overlay with good possibilities for muscle-memory automation.

I have noticed the same thing happening several times before. In 2003, I worked on a design concept called post-hoc worknotes to enable people to manage large volumes of video in an office setting. There were three separate features in that design that all appeared as separate products in the fall of 2008: Searching video clips through speech-to-text audio tracks (Gaudi), searching by drawing sketches of visually salient features (Gazopa) and digital pens indexing audio and video streams (LiveScribe).

The point, again, is that our work in 2003 was based on published lab research and innovation in some cases ranging back over ten years. It is not really important who is “first”; not much is genuinely new anyway. Publishing “new” things is not the only way to contribute to society — in fact, examples like the ones above seem to show rather that innovations take hold when the time is right for them.


In my opinion, and based on the observation above, what is important for design research is not to be “first” but rather to seek relevance and meaning in use situations, in society, in culture. To me, the real thrill lies in understanding a user, a customer, a workplace or a social practice well enough to be able to design directions that go well beyond the incremental “solving” of what the people in question think are the “problems” in today’s situation.

To simplify a little, there is a stereotype of independent research creating future innovations which are then tossed over the wall to “market actors” eagerly waiting to productify the ideas and capitalize on the IPR. The actual tossing is often thought of as an exercise in popularizing scientific results; concepts such as “knowledge transfer” abound. Speaking as a design researcher, I find this view to be inefficient and awkward at best.

The only real exception in the last decade seems to be multi-touch input technology, which set a new agenda overnight for the whole interface industry when researcher Jeff Han implemented the 1960s Frustrated Total Internal Reflection algorithm in a large touchscreen and tossed it over the wall by means of a demo talk at TED in 2006. I honestly can’t think of any other recent examples of successful tossing of basic interaction-design research.

To the contrary, it seems clear to me that when I look for relevance and meaning, the best way I can do that is to work together with people who know what is relevant and meaningful by virtue of being in daily and sustained contact with the contexts and practices I am interested in. In other words: co-production. Collaboration across the spectrum from basic research to use seems to me like a more efficient way to use the scarce resources allocated to research and innovation in society.


In my experience, a successful co-production project should obey two simple rules. First, the partners must share a common goal. This is the reason for collaborating, and the common goal should be something tangible (a transformation of an aspect of society, a new service, etc.) rather than a generic goal such as “learning more”. Second, the partners must also have their own goals, agendas, and reasons for engaging in collaboration. This is where the intrinsic motivation of each partner comes from. For example, a researcher might be motivated by the prospect of publishing scientific papers on an academically relevant aspect of the collaborative work, whereas a company might be looking to extend their product portfolio.

As an example of the two rules in effect, consider the ongoing co-production project called Substrate. Here, Medea is working together with a company called Sigma Kudos, specializing in technical information and information logistics, and with companies and individuals making up the customers of Sigma Kudos. The common goal is to transform the technical-information industry from a producer-consumer view towards a more collaborative view on technical information, motivated by recent developments in new media and the changed use expectations and practices that they bring.

The collaborative means for moving towards the common goal include designing a new technical platform for creating and disseminating technical information, as well as performing interventions among Sigma Kudos management, employees and customers to change the notions of what technical information is and what it could be.

Sigma Kudos also has another agenda in the project, of course, which simply states that collaborative media is the way people’s expectations are moving and it makes good business sense to align their products and offerings with the changing expectations (preferably in a proactive rather than a reactive way, in order to emphasize the aspects of their brand that are about state-of-the-art competence).

For the researchers, the project serves as a case study in transforming an established media structure from production-consumption to more collaborative approaches. The idea is that what we can learn from the Sigma Kudos case will be valuable also for other established media structures facing similar transformations, including actors in the news and broadcast media.

To conclude, I find that good cases of co-production can lead to momentum in several important directions, including relevant and meaningful innovation. For me as a design researcher, it simply seems more efficient — and certainly more rewarding — than hoping to contribute to diffusion of innovation by tossing things blindly over a wall.

(Image credits: tomhilton @ Flickr CC; cortexapp.com; author.)

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