Rethinking User-Centered Research
Heather Ball and Mitzi R. Vernon | Virginia Tech
This paper discusses the convergence of two phenomena influencing industrial design education today: the relatively new and evolving discipline of user research and, due to the introduction of the Internet, an exponential growth of and ready access to information. It is this intersection that prompts a proposal of a set of research tools–competencies–for industrial design undergraduates. Here, competencies are defined as the fundamental skills essential for industrial design research at the undergraduate level and beyond. A design research course at Virginia Tech, serves as a venue for the development of these competencies.
When the design research course began in the mid-1990s, user research as applied to industrial design was just beginning to surface in academia. A major influence was the introduction of ethnography as a methodology for design research, which has its roots with Lucy Suchman’s work in the 1980s at Xerox PARC.1 What has become central to the foundation of the course is an introduction to the history of this development and the evolution of what the Harvard Business Review called “empathic design” (studying people interacting with products and environments).2
At the same time user research was being introduced to design education, the introduction of the Internet and a subsequent explosion of information was beginning to impact higher education overall. Today, almost 800 MB of recorded information is produced per person each year, (it takes about 30 feet of books to store the same amount of information on paper).3 With the introduction of the Internet and, since the 1980s, a growth in the number of proprietary databases (such as the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, Lexis/Nexis, PubMed, and Ergonomics Abstracts), academic librarians have seen a sharp increase in requests from faculty for “library instruction” workshops. These workshops generally involve teaching how to form a query, the mechanics of database searching, and how to locate articles using online indexes and full-text databases. In addition, since the 1990s librarians have introduced, through their instruction workshops, “information literacy” skills – the entire process of finding, retrieving, analyzing, and using information effectively. In 2000, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) introduced a document, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, that aims to define what set of skills are needed in order to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information. These skills are considered life-long learning skills—skills that are essential to building an informed and engaged society.4 Finally, library instruction workshops are also, in many cases, a students’ first introduction to what James Elmborg calls “academic information literacy…the ability to read, interpret, and produce information valued in academia” (e.g., how to identify peer-reviewed publications and how to correctly cite resources).5 These types of skills are introduced throughout the design research course.