Thursday, October 26, 2017

[Friday Seminar Recap] Deliberate Design or Accidental Abuse? Misappropriations of Applied Anthropology in Global Design Consulting


Date: October 20, 2017
Speaker: Non Arkaraprasertkul (Department of Architecture, Design and Planning, Sydney University)
Title: Deliberate Design or Accidental Abuse? Misappropriations of Applied Anthropology in Global Design Consulting

Dr. Non Arkaraprasertkul

Since the 1970s, “design research” has become popular in the consulting industry. It is a form of research that emphasizes empathy, and aims to create demand for yet-to-be realized needs. Dr. Arkaraprasertkul started to investigate design research by introducing the idea of “Anthropology Inc.” raised by Graeme Wood. Nowadays, the largest margin of any market across the globe lies in everyday consumerism. Therefore, the consulting companies treat people’s everyday experience as a research subject of major value, and turn to anthropology and use the method of field research. Jane Fulton Suri, author of Thoughtless Acts and founder of Human Centered Design Research at IDEO, is a prominent figure in this field.

Dr. Arkaraprasertkul introduced the characteristics of design research. Design research relies on observing people as they act naturally, and empathy is a regarded as a crucial guiding principle, as the researchers defer judgement on value. Importantly, design research is clearly goal-oriented, and the goal is usually a commercial one. The key methods of design research, Dr. Arkaraprasertkul explained, are: go out and watch people; ask questions, no matter how “dumb” they appear; embrace extreme users; find people who break rules when using things and find out why; think about experience rather than things; think in verbs rather than nouns; and borrow ideas from other areas. Dr. Arkaraprasertkul then showed several examples of design research.

While it all looks great in principle, what Dr. Arkaraprasertkul experienced during his six-month fieldwork in a transnational global design consulting firm based at a first-tier city in China turned out to be less than ideal. He found out that in this firm, the design researchers, who were supposed to listen to their informants carefully, were too ready to instead speak on behalf of the informants. The interviews were mostly structured and directive, and the researchers often told the rest of the research teams what, as they believed it, the informants thought. Utmost emphasis was put on film and sound recordings, as they could be used as “solid evidence”. What’s more, Dr. Arkaraprasertkul sensed a strong sense of entitlement among the design researchers, who actually saw themselves more as consultants, would like to keep a distance from their informants, and held a deep sense of hostility toward “academic research”. Most importantly, Dr. Arkaraprasertkul pointed out, the researchers have to be result-oriented so as to meet deadlines and get paid. In conclusion, Dr. Arkaraprasertkul argued that the essence and spirit of anthropology is “diluted” in design research.

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