Building a discourse about design and foresight

Currently completing my PhD program (thesis defense is next week), it gave me the occasion of looking back and think about what interest me. My original background is cognitive sciences (with a strong emphasis on psychology, psycholinguistics and what the french calls ergonomie) and the PhD will be in computer sciences/human computer interaction. In most of my work, I have been confronted to multidisciplinary/interdisciplinarity (even in my undergraduate studies). It took me a while to understand that my interest less laid in pure cognitive science research (for example the investigation of processes such as intersubjectivity, and its relation to technologies) but rather about the potential effects of technologies on human behavior and cognitive process. In a sense this is a more applied goal, and it led me to take into account diverse theories or methods. Of course, this is challenging since mixing oil and water is often troublesome in academia. Given that my research object is embedded in space (technology goes out of the box with ubicomp) and social (technology is deployed in multi-user applications), there was indeed a need to expand from pure cogsci methods and including methods and theories from other disciplines. The most important issues regarding my work for that matter were the never-ending qualitative versus quantitative methods confrontation (I stand in-between using a combination of both, depending on the purpose) AND the situated versus mentalist approach (to put it shortly: is cognition about mind's representation? or is it situated in context?). So, this was a kind of struggle in my phd research.

However, things do not end here. Working in parallel of my PhD as a consultant/user experience researcher for some companies (IT, videogames), I had to keep up with some demands/expectations that are often much more applied... and bound to how this research would affect NPD/design or foresight (the sort of project I work on). Hence, there was a need to have a discourse about these 2 issues: design and foresight. No matter that I was interested in both, it was not that easy to understand how the research results/methods can be turned into material for designers or foresight scenarios. SO, three years of talking with designers, developers, organizing design/foresight workshops, conferences helped a bit but I am still not clear about it (I mean I don't even know how to draw something on paper).

Recently, I tried to clear up my mind about this and the crux issue here is the constant shifting between research and design (or foresight, sorry for putting both in the same bag here but it applies to both). The balance between research that can be reductionist (very focused problem studied, limits in generalizing or time-consuming) and design that needs a global perspective is fundamental. The other day,I had a fruitful discussion with a friend working on consumer insight projects for a big company. Coming from a cognitive science background as this friend, I was interested in his thoughts concerning how he shifted from psychology to management of innovation/design of near-future products/strategy.

I asked him about "turning points" or moments that changed his perspective. He mentioned two highlights. The first one was the paradigm shift in cognitive science in the late 80s when the notion of distributed cognition (Dcog) appeared. Dcog basically posited that cognition was rather a systemic phenomenon that concerned individuals, objects as well as the environment and not only the individual's brain with mental representation. To him, this is an important shift because once we accept the idea that cognition/problem solving/decisions are not an individual process, it's easier to bring social, cultural and organizational issues to the table.

The second highlight he described me is when he use to work for a user experience company that conducted international studies, he figure out that the added value not only laid in those studies but also in the cumulative knowledge they could draw out of them: the trend that emerged, the intrinsical motivation people had for using certain technologies, the moment innovation appeared. This helped him change the way he apprehended the evolution of innovations and made him question the fact that they can follows long s-curves.

material to design the future

Why do I blog this? random thoughts on a rainy sunday afternoon about what I am doing. This is not very structured but I am still trying to organize my thoughts about UX/design/foresight and how I handle that. I guess this is a complex problem that can be addressed by talking with people working on design/foresight/innovation. What impresses me is observing how individual's history helps to understand how certain elements encountered shape each others' perspective.

The picture simply exemplify the idea that conducting design/foresight projects need a constant change of focus between micro and macro perspectives. This reflects the sort of concern I am interested in by taking into account very focused perspectives (user interface, user experience, cognitive processes) and broader issues (socio-cultural elements, organizational constraints...).