The relevance of design research for social services

Published in Features on 9 May 2014

I consider myself a bit of a magpie; a bit of a scavenger when it comes to research: I’m opportunistic, interdisciplinary and entrepreneurial.  My current design research projects are varied; one explores how digital technologies can help people engage with the arts, another is about using design to help the government procure better services, which I recently presented in Helsinki, and another is about the role design plays in innovation. A broad range of projects. All design research. So what’s the relevance of these kinds of projects to social services?

My thoughts so far:

  1. The findings of design research projects themselves are useful. For example, I am currently working on a project about how designerly approaches can help engender empathy between commissioning and procurement in the public sector. You can find out more about this project on the Lancaster University website. This project began as a design research project about how the government bought design, but as it progressed, we started to realize that the process of redesigning design procurement could be useful in re-imagining the procurement of social services. Therefore projects on the edges of interest may still be useful, and may therefore prompt further dialogue between design and social services.
  2. My research tends to be qualitative, grounded, and inductive, where I am deeply embedded within the projects themselves, working with people and within dynamic contexts, rather than being a “data gatherer”. This parallels the work of social services researchers too. Research questions emerge as a result of engagement and experience, rather than being generated by a review of literature (as they may be in academic research), or dictated by a client (in commercial settings). Research methods are developed mindfully and are appropriate to the project. So it’s not about it being academically rigourous, or leading-edge for industry – it’s about what’s appropriate for the context. IRISS and other organizations working within the health and social services sector are already benefitting from creative methods of engagement, and design research is firmly about putting the user at the centre and takes a creative, human centred approach.
  3. A designerly approach to designing research itself can be useful to those working in social services. For example, one characteristic of design research (and this relates to other disciplines linked to social sciences) is that the methodology and methods are not often clear, and may emerge alongside the project. What’s more, design researchers are creative, and may therefore stumble across new methods in their practice, which may not have been apparent at the outset. This ability to creatively “have a stab” to do, reflect, and re-plan, is characteristic of a designerly approach. Sadly, this reflective, practice-based approach is rarely published, and there is a dearth of good student textbooks to supplement experiential learning.

There is one other complimentary strand between design research and social services that’d like to mention. Design researchers are increasingly seeking more agile ways of research dissemination – and more so where the work is “in progress”.  This chimes so well with those in social services, who really need access to research findings and “raw” reflection and accounts of approaches as they happen – rather than after the event.

So, this piece acknowledges and celebrates the existing collaborations between design researchers and those in the social services, but calls for more agile, reflective, and less-polished ways of sharing the research approaches used in this growing community.