Bringing the "real" to design through user experience research

The link between user research and design is a topic I focus on even more closely than in the past, perhaps because of my involvement in different design courses. More specifically, I am interested in how user research can be relevant for design purposes and what are the underlying process one can put into place to work this out. Since I work with video game designers and interaction designers (yes I make the distinction between both but that's another story), this issue is quite important. One of the interesting term here is the notion of "the real" as user research is meant to bring material concerning the real world, what users really do, what are their constraints and needs, and in fine why they do what they do. The literature in HCI, especially about the use of ethnography, has a wide take on this but I was more curious to see what designers have to say about it. Reading User research at IDII: Three case studies, 2002-2004 by Simona Maschi, Laura Polazzi and Jay Melican, I ran across this interesting quote:

"Everything we learn from user studies has the great advantage of being “true” (although not in an absolute way), because it comes from the real world and fromreal experiences. This makes it somehow believable and graspable for our audience, both within and outside of the design team. In other words user studies provide the design team with “live material” that can be used to share thoughts and ideas and to communicate the project effectively to the world."

(The document is btw a relevant set of case study and quick description of research methods employed at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea).

This notion of the "real" as the cornerstone of the exchange between UX research and design was also interestingly tackled at the recent EPIC conference. See for example how this weblog highlight the "real issue" in the discussion about how ethnographers can build and exhibit the authority necessary to be able to sell and provide ethnographic insights:

"Simon Pulman-Jones argued, ethnographers in industry are seeking to establish themselves as an authority on The Real - what it is really like out there in order to commoditize our insights, our epiphanies to help the organisations that we work for and with. (...) Ethnographers are indeed ‘brokers of the real‘ - they have themselves attained a sort of gatekeeper role between the designers and the engineers and the real world where real people actually use the products. They help the engineers meet and understand the users, in order to change the way the engineers think and feel about them."

Why do I blog this? preparing a lecture about this issue, gathering notes and elements for heated debates. I won't enter into the debate about whether the "real" is graspable (the amount of literature about this issue is so huge that you'd better start with Plato), nor about ethnography as the solution to the world's problem (is ethnography really about describing the world?). Rather, I find interesting here is the increasing impression that the "real" should be brought to the table in design and therefore a different set of allies (ethnographers now, ergonomists and cognitive psychologists in the past), tools (qualitative research today, quantitative research yesterday) gain momentum over time.

My personal impression here is that: (1) yes the real should be explored, analyzed and employed in the design process, (2) however the "real" is perhaps not so real for lots of reasons: the "data capture" implied by the time/budget constraints of project, the "data reduction" caused by the method (quant method = reductionism, qual method = research as the instrument), the mean of transferring the results to the design team (collaborative workshop? pdf report sent by email?), etc.