The philosophy of technology is to design and develop tools that make human tasks easier to accomplish. A hammer – if regarded as a piece of technology – is designed to make it easier to nail something to a wall. However, the problems to be tackled through the invention of a new piece of technology are not always as obvious. Designing a new piece of technology requires a deep understand of the prospective users and stakeholders, as well as their domain specific goals, motivations and experienced issues in everyday life tasks.
In collaboration with my colleague John Venable, I wrote a paper on a new methodological approach (“Participatory Action Design Research”), which I felt was necessary in order to tackle the interdisciplinary nature of challenges that I encountered in my PhD research. In my PhD project I have been focusing on designing innovative digital technology for public libraries to facilitate peer-to-peer among library users. My aim conducting this research is not only to design and develop innovative ubiquitous computing technology, but to do so in a way that is informed by the socio-cultural context where this technology was to be deployed. Similar to other projects that involve the design of innovative technology, my selected case study and prospective deployment site at The Edge (at State Library of Queensland) came with some difficult methodological challenges in relation to user-centred design:
The nature of The Edge as a public library space meant that there was a plethora of stakeholders and their particular interests to take into account; those were, in particular, the government as a funding body, The State Library of Queensland as the mother institution and different stakeholders within The Edge – the general manager, the program manager, PR team, staff, facilities management and last but not least, an extremely diverse user community (the nature of The Edge as an open and public library space attracts a huge diversity of users from different socio-economic and educational backgrounds, ages, cultures, ethnicities, needs, pre-entry motivations, expectations and attitudes).
Given this research context, I was torn between two methodological frameworks. Design Research, having its roots in engineering, informs a research process towards an innovative technology artefact, but lacks methodological tools to gather a rich understanding of perceived issues within a socio-cultural environment. In order to understand the challenges, barriers and requirements of connected learning in the context of a place such as The Edge, a ‘quick-and-dirty’ ethnographic approach, as often encountered in Design Research studies, would not be sufficient. Action Research, on the other hand, provides a rich methodological framework to identify challenges, barriers and issues in a social or organisational setting, and evaluate actions and interventions towards their impact on that setting. However, Action Research does not implicitly foresee design and development of innovative technology as a research outcome.
The paper arose in my quest to construct a methodological framework that combined the strengths of both Design Research and Action Research in order to inform and guide the design, development and impact evaluation of innovative technology in complex socio-cultural environments that involve multiple stakeholders and a huge variety of users. Embracing the philosophy of the Scandinavian Participatory Design tradition (Gregory, 2003), this approach also sought to increase the democracy in relation to design decisions and artefacts that affect people’s experience in public spaces. The resulting ‘Participatory Action Design Research’ (PADR) framework guided my subsequent investigations at The Edge. However, the publication was written for a more general audience of designers in the broader domain of Urban Informatics, i.e. designers who are concerned with the creation of innovative digital technology for urban public places and general members of the public as users.
The PADR process consists of five iterative phases, comprising (1) Diagnosing and Problem Formulation; (2) Action Planning; (3) Action Taking: Design; (4) Impact Evaluation; and (5) Reflection and Learning.
With this adaptation of Action Research, its variants, and Design Research, Participatory Action Design Research is proposed as a new method to suit the needs of Urban Informatics and its usual research context and stakeholders. We believe that PADR has the potential to bring the design of digital technologies in the urban context closer to what has been earlier discussed as ‘social construction’ (Bijker et al., 1987) or an ‘ensemble view of technology’ (Orlikowski & Iacono, 2001, p.26). In doing so it will also enable closer collaboration between academic researchers and the communities that they serve and benefit.
Bijker, W, Hughes, T., & Pinch, T (Eds.). (1987). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74.
Orlikowski, WJ, & Iacono, CS. (2001). Desperately seeking the ‘IT’ in IT research-a call to theorizing the IT artifact. Information systems research, 12(2), 121-134.