Frustrations of focus groups
We received the focus group feedback – a process and outcome that I wasn’t particularly excited by. Apart from the usual frustrations and criticism for focus group testing, I wanted to drill down more deeply on why I find this is so.
I cannot help but feel how unproductive focus groups are as it often takes place once the bulk of the design has already been conducted. Collectively, the three designers have spent 30 hours on developing the concept – and there will be less time/money for further development. This points to the problem of how the job is quoted and expected of between the designer and the client. We should begin addressing this in our collective and consider how it could be changed in the future. In order for this to take place, we need to have a grounded understanding of the alternatives and a strong argument of why the current model isn’t effective for all concerned.
As many focus group testing demonstrates, the feedback come framed by ‘likes’, ’suggestions’ and what appears to be an objective critique of the designs. This indicates that there are several levels of feedback inter-meshed and taking place all at once – those that are based on personal emotive reactions to what they see; those that are based on what they believe it to be and those that are based on a limited knowledge of design and communication. Thus, the designers receiving this feedback often become confused with what to do. How can these varying levels of feedback be weighed against one another? One major problem is in the reading and interpretation of the feedback. For example, when the feedback suggests ‘prefer to see a real person rather than a cartoon’ what does this indicate? Is this a personal preference, what is the different meaning between the two visual imagery for them? What is the critique?
In a design process that values the equal input of others, the focus group masks itself under a the guise of ‘audience input’, yet it is in fact a closed form of communication. It is a monologue. There is no dialogue between the designer and audience, therefore the designer’s knowledge cannot expand to include a greater understanding of the audience. When critique is offered amongst designers, it is a practice based on an understanding of why and how the critique is made. This is essential in how the critique ‘makes sense’ to designers and enables them to reflect upon the work and to generate further alternatives. However, the focus testing feedback does not clarify the ‘why’ or ‘how’ the critique is made. The designers are prevented from gaining a deeper understanding of the motivations and rationale behind the feedback.
The motivations and rationale is significant in negotiating values. What is important to the audience? What is important to the client? What is important for the designers? To undertake a process that is inclusive and empowers the stakeholders involved, the dialogue and understanding based on values become significant. It is through the process of discussing, negotiating and illuminating different values that we consolidate the outcome. We may explicitly agree on meta values such as democracy, respect, equality and participation as the core values underlying this project. The poster outcome needs to embed and communicate these values. However, how can it be communicated? Could deploying humour be a way for the idea to be inclusive of others, or would this be alienating/trivialising? Will using illustrative style images convey emphasis on freedom but become too informal? How much of one value can be emphasised without becoming detrimental to another value? In this set-up, the values are not mutually exclusive – they are all important but the over-simplification and symbolism of them cannot be avoided, which often requires a hierarchy of importance. The designer’s knowledge and skill is based on this complex and often subconscious negotiation of what ‘values’ the combination and outcome of visual forms could potentially convey. On top of this, there is no universal rule that governs how visual forms are ‘translated’ – it is all based on interpretation and individual meaning-making. Thus, to receive a simplistic critique that the audiences ‘prefers without the image’, leaves the designer confused as to what it means. What are the values hidden and masked behind this feedback?
To make sense of focus group testing, engaging in conversation with the person present, ie the facilitator is vital. The facilitator then becomes the conduit between the audience, designer and the client. They are the ones who can unlock the cryptic messages, to reveal the hidden ‘values’, motivations and rationale behind them. Only then could the designer make sense of and begin to understand the audience’s perspective and input. Furthermore, the facilitator who produces the forum group feedback summary, also needs to be aware and consider how the feedback can make sense if and when read without their presence.
The polarity of the ‘versus’
Just reading my post I made yesterday, I noticed how I used ‘versus’ in the title between values. I think its an interesting position (black and white-ness) but what I am really trying to understand is the big letter Values AND the small letter values (rather than Values vs values – as if they were somehow mutually exclusive).
Values vs values – the upper case and the lower case
I just read through a whole heap of books on the library that talked about values in business. Values are sometimes discussed as the employee and employer relationship and how the employer manages the business. For example, in ‘The Healing Manager’ by William Lundin and Kathleen Lundin (1993), case studies are given to how managers had to undergo personal growth to cultivate trusting relationships amongst the workers. There is overtness of ‘new age’ in this book – programs you undergo; its written so accessibly and conversationally that I am no knowledgeable or learned in any way about what values are or how this manifests amongst people working together.
Another book called ‘Discovering the Souls of Service’ by Leonard L. Berry (1999) is about the importance of humane values in building a lasting service business. They say ‘Great service companies build a humane community (the organisation and its partners) that humanely serves customers and the broader communities in which they live. Everyone benefits from the existence of a great company – customers, employees, suppliers, investors, cities, nations. Strong institutional values enabling human beings at work to realise their full potential as individuals and as members of a community contribute to the creation of compelling value inside and outside the company. The company survives a success because it is more fully alive.’ (p. 17). What this book has done is to already identify a consistent set of core values that have permeated the high-performance service companies in the book. Included are ‘Excellence’, ‘Joy’, ‘Innovation’, ‘Respect’, ‘Teamwork’, ‘Social profit’, and ‘integrity’. It is then the role of the ‘value-driven leaders’ to live out the values in their daily behaviour. ‘Through their actions large and small, leaders demonstrate core values. Through their words, they reinforce what they model.’ (p. 43). Upon reading this sentence, I am reminded of the branding talk – in the design formgiving sense, these core values would also reflect in the communication outcomes and formats as well.
What I am struck by is how simplistic and easy these books make it sound. I am all for these ‘core values’ to be lived and embraced – and in a sense, that is what I have also attempted to do in my own practice. However, there is one fundamental difference in our perspective – I think my research has discovered that the process of design reveals the values of people, rather than it being a process that cements it down. One could say it is far easier to agree on a set of values, implement them and manifest them in the outcomes. I don’t think it is this simple. The process and outcome of Management vs Community, the collaborative processes of Dear John and the interviews all revealed to me how complex the process is – also, how hidden and subliminal it is – for me to only discover it now.
To be ‘human’
I came across an interview by Tony Fry and Ziauddin Sardar. This interview is published on Design Philosophy Papers (http://designphilosophypolitics.informatics.indianna.edu/?p=30) where Ziauddin is described as ‘a consistent critic of the west, because much of what he says implicitly challenges how the west has globalised a model of ‘universal design’ that flattens out cultural differences, and how this theory of designing lives on in contemporary practices, not lease many of those that go under the banner of ‘design and development’.
Tony Fry begins the interview by criticising the west for concealing learning of science, technology and creative arts from other cultures which enabled its advancement. Ziauddin states how this is not accidental: “Its main function is to deny that non-western cultures have played any part in shaping modernity and the world we live in.” Further he explains how colonialism had much to blame for this invasion of culture and religion and is the root to the western notion that ‘there is only one way to be human.’ Examples such as how the Aboriginies were seen and treated as ‘feral creatures’ demonstrate how the West had dehumanised indigenous cultures and peoples in the past.
This led to a discussion on the UN declaration of human rights, which Ziauddin states it is a limited definition of “what it means to be human” in a western term. On top of the basic rights to food, shelter, education etc, he sees how communal or group rights as part of human rights as well as association with land. UN Declaration of human rights is just the beginning – it requires inclusion of other humans’ definition of what makes them ‘human’. He states further, “the real challenge that we face is not just to appreciate difference and diversity – for this is now old hat… we need to go further and create space for difference to exist as difference – for such great ideas as Law and Ethics in Islam, Tao and Hindu Logic to flourish – and for difference to demonstrate the difference in human behaviour. And this space has to be physical, spiritual, historical as well as intellectual – where all other ways of being human can exist and thrive.”
I am very moved by his statement – it vocalises and makes explicit what I have felt deep down for a long time. It reflects the critique I have made of the inclusive design movement where particular aspects are priviledged and emphasised (disability, elderly etc, and if so, in a very literal and functional manner) over gender, cultural, religious, spiritual inclusion. If design is a manifestation of our humanity and what the world could be, the design surely needs to consider the diversity and differences of humanness, and reflect this in its process and outcomes.
Ziauddin then introduces the idea of ‘transmodern’ – a way to focus equally on the differences and shared values. Transmodernity is a worldview that is beyond modernity and postmodernism. He explains, ‘It has a different take on culture (which is seen as a flexible base to expand tradition, to make place for newness and domesticate the unfamiliar, and as a method for changing without losing one’s sense of identity and connectedness to the past) and tradition (which is seen as dynamic and changing while remaining the same).’
The tao of communication design
Today I have had a critical incident. When discussing how I have felt authors (like Friere, Krippendorff or even Margolin) who argue for the importance of human values, and how I felt a sense of heavy-handedness, Laurene mentioned that perhaps it might be because of my Eastern background and how I am informed by Taoist philosophy. Silly as it may sound, I often forget that I am Japanese when I’m doing design research! Uncannily, I have come full-circle as I am reminded of my very first GRC presentation where I started with a Taoist quote.
When thinking of it as a ‘tao’, it is a philosophical way of approaching the practice of communication design, rather than prescribing the ‘values’ that should be held as important within it. Now my research feels much ‘lighter’ rather than trying to push the argument, which I have always felt uncomfortable with. Here’s how I expressed that earlier. One of the ‘uncomfortable-ness’ on defining these values as principles is precisely in the idea of a ‘definition’. Who am I to say that these values are important in creating a design practice? They could be ones that had emerged from my own practice, but what I am passing on to others and sharing knowledge is not how these values are important, but how others may discover and know which values are important to them. This is one significant difference between my approach and other designer/researchers who may circle around a similar topic but have a fundamentally different approach and ‘world view’.
If designing is a way of manifesting what we want the world to be, there is no right or wrong ‘view’ of the world. Infact, there is no ‘world to be’, but just an approach informed by the individuals who inhabit that world. Often, it is through a daily application of what we do and think, with others, that we make sense of what the world is in the first place. It creates a space for contemplation and reflection through action, rather than action that leads systematically to production.
I have also realised how my practice of Tai Chi is connected to design research – it is through the doing that I make sense of what it means, which then leads to how I alter how I do things in the future. The instructor can teach me the basic moves, but it is in the daily practice and the mind/body/spirit context that I bring to the movements that changes the discovery, learning and meanings of Tai Chi. In that way, I carve out ‘The path – Tao’.
More on values
I have started talking with Dori through her blog (http://dori3.typepad.com/) – a discussion which, selfishly, circles around my interest on ‘values’ and ‘roles’ of the designer. Her posts had provoked me to consider and question how we define ‘values’, what they are and how do we know what is more important than the other?
Further to this thought, this is what I wrote on her blog:
“My understanding of values are that they are not clear-cut – often they are very difficult to define, and particularly difficult to ‘rank’ how one is more important than the other. I agree that there are certain social values that are held important – but here again, I think it also becomes complex when one begins to dissect how an individual / family / community / culture / society may define and express those values.
It is because I define values from a position of it being very complex and ‘grey’ that I question the role of ‘translation’ by the designer. My perspective is that a designer, as a citizen, an individual and who is part of the community, have as much to explore which values are important to them, as much as the client and potential audiences. To me, design is a way of manifesting these values and the process of designing is a process of negotiating the values amongst the various stakeholders.
I think the process of designing ie, the thinking, making and reflecting and crafting, is inextricably linked with the process of negotiating how and which values are collectively manifested through the final outcome. Through the discussions, making and critiquing, certain values may be illuminated which may have not been made explicit before.”
Politics, agency and values, the key themes in my research all links together. Designing is political because values of the individual, organisation or community surfaces through designing. I had masked this understanding of ‘values’ as ‘hidden agendas’ before, but ofcourse they are linked. Agency is then about how we express those values, or even discover how we ‘own’ them in the context of the design project – but this discovery is not conducted in isolation – it is through the friction, re-presentation and generation enabled by the discussion and expression of values by others that is vital. I believe there is a constant evaluation of our values when we design with others – a self-reflection that often occurs in collaborative practice.
Several comments on with Dori, I am beginning to understand that Dori’s firm positioning has challenged how I formulate my own positioning. In response to an e-mail from her, I wrote:
“It is interesting how you mention that the alignment of values are important – and I think so too – but at the same time, I think this is very difficult to achieve. In fact, I have sought work this way and my career in design practice is therefore biased to working with NGOs and local governments on human rights, education and environmental issues, both in-house and as a freelancer.
It is easy to assume that with my (designer) passion for human rights, equality and participation, that it will be easier to work with NGOs with similarly aligned social values… but in fact, after 11 years of working with this sector, I am having second thoughts. Whilst undertaking a PhD, I began to examine the more complex workings of how designers work with others. I began to critically reflect on how I work with clients (or even, colleagues, when I was working internally with them) and it was illuminated often that there had not been ‘alignment of values’ during the design process. This was a surprising discovery. The ‘mis-alignment’ was revealed through ways that people discussed and made decisions on the process and outcome of design. Sometimes decisions were made by the management committee without consultation with others. Sometimes the discussion didn’t involve advocates of other stakeholders. Sometimes, enough consideration and attention were not given to certain issues/aspects/ people’s voices. Such minor incidences that takes place between people can have a significant effect on the end outcome.
This realisation made me question how values are interpreted and manifested through our actions, and the impact is has on design. I would be confident in assuming that every client/colleague I worked with had similar over-arching values as myself, of equality, respect, trust and honesty etc, but over the course of a design project different agendas, organisational politics, various personal priorities and urgencies slightly shifted and altered the way we worked. I think what I noticed and describe is the ‘human-ness’ of interaction – the situated nature and complexity of what and where design takes place.
This experience and my critical engagement with it has made me question what ‘values’ are, to question my position of it from a ‘black and white’ viewpoint to move towards ’shades of grey’. Designing with other people forces me to question my values, to negotiate that and to question how it manifests, both in formal outcomes (type, colour etc) and also in how I work with others. This is why I had critiqued your blog posts – how values are ‘defined’, what does ‘translator’ mean, and how is ‘alignment’ of values achieved?
As I mentioned, I find this discussion very helpful, selfishly from my point of view, because your position challenges me to make my own position explicit. Your statements and assertive comments, in turn, makes me question how I formulate my own. The impression that I had about the similarity of our approaches, may in fact turn out to be very different, and I am also fascinated by this.”
The Citizen Designer
In the most recent Looking Closer 5 (2006, Allworth press), I came across Victor Margolin’s ‘The Citizen Designer’. He launches a mighty question at the beginning where he states, ‘What is frequently lacking as citizens… is a set of core values that can enable them to make judgments about the personal and social worth of these experiences and to then act on those judgments.’ (p. 118). He then critiques design profession for not critically thinking about ‘what they are doing and the conditions within which they work’ and how ‘these arguments have yet to reach a place within professional design consciousness where they are central to the way every designer practices.’
Which is why I LOVE Victor. I should make a t-shirt in homage.
More to come. Must dash to class.
When reading through this book by Kathryn Best (2006, AVA publishing), I was curious in finding out what design management and my research topic had in common. She states early in the book; ‘ The aim of this book is to promote a clearer understanding of design’s role in business and the importance of design as a way of creating value in an organisation’. She further questions, ‘Can design be used to add more value to business? What role can design play in business?’
Design management, in this book’s context, is firmly situated in a business framework. It positions commerce and financial concerns at the centre of the activity. Even though they discuss the importance of communication and building relationships, the main intention of involving key stakeholders is to ‘getting their support and buy-in. An effective way to do this is to describe the actual design strategy, but in terms that sell the benefits to each of the stakeholder’s business units” (p. 54)
Trust and respect are also mentioned as vital elements in building and maintaining this business relationship.
So, what is significantly different to my research?
Firstly, the main difference between a design management’s approach to valuing stakeholder’s input compared to the research’s approach is in its intention. The former places emphasis on effectively deploying resources in order to pursue corporate objectives. It is management that informs design decisions based on commercial incentives. In contrast, my research places emphasis on social values and human concerns central to why and how stakeholders are involved. Designing is a process in which these values and concerns become illuminated, negotiated and discussed.
Secondly, the rhetoric of design management promotes the management of streamlining people and tasks in the most cost and time efficient manner. This is reflected in various diagrams and communication outputs that emphasises this as an important objective in management. In contrast, my research reflects and acknowledges the human interactions and negotiations that are messy and unpredictable. It is in and through this ‘messiness’ that designing can be undertaken. It positions this as a process to value, embrace and promote in order to enable the unexpected outcomes to emerge through people’s active input. It is through this process of embracing people’s participation and the unpredictability of designing, that we understand and communicate to others what we want the world to be. Or, perhaps more acurately, explore what the world could be.
Dr. Yoko Akama is a Senior Lecturer in communication design in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. She undertakes research to explore the role and agency of design to tackle social issues. Her expertise is in human-centred design that sees design as ’scaffolds’ to facilitate communication, engagement and co-creation with people that leads to transformative change. Her current research project with the Bushfire CRC explores design methods to strengthen community resilience in mitigating bushfire risks. She co-leads the Service Design Network Melbourne and Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability-Lab Melbourne. She is also an active design researcher at the Design Research Institute, RMIT.
She is Japanese, but loves meat pies and brussels sprouts. She came to Australia 11 years ago chasing sea turtles, contemplating a career change from graphic design and ended up teaching and studying more design instead. Though the connection she has felt to this amazing land, people and creatures is still evident in the kinds of design projects she does at the moment.
Her practice-led PhD explored a human-centred practice in communication design. This was completed in 2008. It was titled, ‘The tao of communication design practice: manifesting implicit values through human-centred design’ and can be downloaded electronically from RMIT library.
For more information, please go to:
RMIT staff profile page
Yoko’s publications on Academia
Victorian electoral project
Thursday August 02nd 2007, 2:08 pm
Filed under: Case study
I thought I should begin writing thoughts down on how this project is proceeding – its the first chance I have in applying the learnings, knowledge and methods I have discovered through my PhD in a ‘real’ context.
The set-up is perfect, a great one for a trial. 3 value-aligned designers who all like and respect one another, working with a open-minded creative, young client. The project is to engage young people to enroll for voting. We had a discussion this morning in clarifying the client’s brief, and then did a brainstorm session to pool ideas. Anna is doing well in being open and enabling our input – I am often amazed by how inviting and welcoming she is on projects like these. Rather than ‘hogging’ it to keep it to herself, she is very willing to allow us to take part. I really admire her quality on that. She is also doing a great job representing the client’s views and intention. She would be doing all the client liason and I feel I could trust her to represent the work we do well.
Its the first time we’re collaborating together but I quickly found out that we were on the same page. It was a successful 2 hours, I felt very liberated in speaking out my mind, even suggesting really really bad ideas. I think Anna and Andy also felt the same. But from bad ideas or a seed of an idea, stronger ones grew. First we critiqued the brief and clarified the hierarchy of messages. The list of concepts suggested by the client were rather poor, but we selected a few that had potential. We felt it was important to make the client feel part of the ideas we came up with – even if we had departed from them quite dramatically, the client’s initiative and contribution was valued. There were differences of opinions as to how an idea might work, but I didn’t sense any tension and I felt that each of us were open to a critique of some kind. I also noticed that Andy was great at thinking creatively and expanding on ideas, but at the same time, he was being quite diplomatic as well (Anna and I suffer the same problem of saying what we think too eagerly!)
However, there is one concern that I had where the client is intending on engaging focus group testing. The concern was more about the process of how and why the focus group is conducted. In an ideal scenario (and this is something I think we could explore in a future project, maybe) is to have conversations with the advocates of the ‘audience’ for idea generation which then formulates the brief. In that way, we could be more informed about what kind of audiences we could engage and also explore potential outcomes. From my point of view, the focus group model as a ‘testing’ of ideas/outcome approach is an unproductive use of our time and potentially very soul-destroying (if they hate all the outcomes). It does safeguard the client from investing in poor solutions but I think it often ends up being a rather bland, safe outcome.
The next stage is for us to develop up the concepts we came up with. Potentially its a lot of work (effort) for a small project but I believe the benefits from working on this project far outweighs it. I’m really excited and I think it shows a great deal of promise!