The first phase of our work on any DFE project involves getting to know the users, providers, and stakeholders of the service we are designing; identifying challenges and opportunities surrounding the service context; and understanding the value that the service is intended to deliver. Some might call this "design research," but we call it simply "discovery."
During the discovery phase of our projects, we employ methods similar to those used by social scientists—such as interviews, observations, and literature reviews—but our perspective and objectives often differ from those of academic researchers. Our findings may have larger social or political implications, but typically, our goal is to explore specific interactions, experiences, and relationships in order to inspire ideas for innovating on a particular service.
Through this process, we are able to negotiate differing perspectives and conflicting interests, generate empathy and understanding among stakeholders, and promote engagement and trust in the design process going forward.
Tools + Techniques
Before trying to make any discoveries of our own, we learn all that we can from the work of others. Reviewing surveys, studies, essays, articles, and other literature allows us to build on existing knowledge and direct our efforts toward what remains to be discovered. In addition to this focused secondary research, we often conduct a broader exploration of potentially analogous products or programs that could offer new ways of thinking about services that we are trying to design or change.
When words aren't enough, we visually depict our ideas. Mapping out service systems and diagramming relationships between stakeholders can help to situate discovery findings in context, align the understanding of collaborators and stakeholders, and illustrate areas of opportunity for innovation. We often find the process of creating these visualizations to be as revealing as the visualizations themselves, so we try to think about them as evolving documents and working theories.
A significant part of our discovery work is often devoted to conducting interviews with the users, providers, and other stakeholders of a service. Typically, these are semi-structured conversations guided by a flexible set of prepared questions. Instead of asking interviewees about what they want or need, we try to engage them in telling stories about what they feel and do. This allows us to collect actionable insights, test initial theories and assumptions, and foster empathy between our design team and service stakeholders.
In addition to simply asking service stakeholders about their experiences, we often seek out opportunities to directly observe them using, providing, or supporting services. This allows us to account for the fact that there's sometimes a difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. In-person observation and on-site "shadowing" also provides us with a visceral sense of the conditions in which a service takes place and helps us understand the design constraints present in this context.
Once we have gathered enough insights to give us a sense of the main challenges and opportunities present within a particular service context, we take a moment to stand back and look for patterns or themes emerging from the data. Writing or printing the individual insights on cards or sticky notes and tagging, coding, or categorizing them in different ways allows us to create novel combinations of ideas, reframe our understanding of old design problems, and reveal new solution spaces that we might have otherwise missed.
In order to communicate our discovery findings to partners and collaborators, and to help maintain a human-centered focus in our design process going forward, we often create fictional but representative characters, or "personas," that embody important qualities of the stakeholders or situations we are designing for. These personas may also play important roles in ideation or scenario-building activities, and they can serve as proxies for stakeholders and advocates for their needs in later decision making and consensus building.
References + Resources
Informing Our Intuition - Jane Fulton Suri
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping - Paco Underhill
Communicating Design Research Knowledge - Lois Frankel
The Agency of Mapping - James Corner
Deconstructing Analysis Techniques - Steve Baty
The Social Design Methods Menu - Lucy Kimbell + Joe Julier
Design Research: Methods and Perspectives - Brenda Laurel
Doing Research In The Real World - David Gray
Tax Time ServiceS Project
A visual representation of our evolving understanding of the stakeholders involved in promoting and providing tax preparation services for low-income New Yorkers.