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METODA: Interview with Henry Mainsah by Noortje Marres about his Marie Curie Project

Methodological Explorations between Design and Social Sciences

Two researchers demonstrating a probe device for quizzing users about rare bird species at a workshop on design techniques as research methods.

Two researchers demonstrating a probe device for quizzing users about rare bird species at a workshop on design techniques as research methods.

NM What can you tell me about METODA?
HM The METODA project investigates how design methods and techniques can be used to do research in social sciences. So it looks at design methods such as prototyping and probes, as a way of engaging research participants with experiences in a non-verbal register. To start with, I conduct a series of interviews with researchers that have experience using these kinds of methods. Then, I create a portfolio of projects where these methods are used. Finally, the goal is to produce a toolkit that researchers in the future can use, providing examples to guide research, and teaching.
NM So you are primarily concerned with existing methods of design research? If so, what is the purpose of mapping them?
HM The point is that these research methods are still mostly used only in design. In this case, I examine how they could be used in other disciplinary areas, such as social research. Could they complement or replace the traditional interview, or observational methods like ethnography? But it also seems to be that the potential of these methods is currently not being fully explored within design.
NM Do you mean that methods like prototyping are taken for granted as ready-made methods, like a package?
HM That's right. I am trying to approach the idea of a toolkit differently. Too often, it is seen like a set of fixed recipes. I think design methods can make social research more explorative. In my project I am exploring toolkits as devices that open up the thinking of the researcher employing these methods, rather than as prescribed steps to be merely 'applied.'
NM So it’s also about method itself?
HM Yes. Take the example of the cultural probe. The original idea was that it would make research more playful, enabling it to play a more imaginative role. But when you see how the probe features in many design projects, it’s used as an alternative for the interview. It's just a way of collecting data, so that its essence is actually being lost in how it’s being used.
NM That’s very interesting. I hope you don't mind going slightly off-topic here, but: do you think there’s also a question about knowledge in all this?
HM Absolutely. My intention is not only to catalogue and to explore, but also to analyse these devices critically; to ask, what kind of knowledge do they produce?
NM Yes, that’s very important. I’ve often been puzzled about the objectives of design methods—in some ways they seem to be about collecting data, about producing an analysis, but on the other hand, it can also often seem that it’s not at all about that, that it’s more about generating materials that can then serve a purpose in other settings, for example by giving a starting point for a conversation or showing a new technology in use. So how does the knowledge objective and the innovation/development objective of these methods act together?
HM My project aims to take seriously the knowledge potential of these methods. Too often, design research takes its theory from other disciplines. But at the same time, you cannot simply replace that knowledge, or look at it simply as data that’s collected. When I started working at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, there were many PhD students in Design who had difficulties giving methodological accounts of their projects, because the existing methodological literature did not actually capture the essence of what they were doing. They did not enable them to account for their practice as a knowledge-generating activity.
NM What are the reasons for this?
HM One of the reasons why I was hired at the school was to address a particular problem. The design curriculum did not really include methods. Whereas methods are an increasingly big part of where designers are contributing. But there is also the interdisciplinary nature of design itself. It draws from many different disciplines, and this often leads to confusion when it comes to positioning design research methodologically. So the computing focus could be in tension or conflict, for example, with cultural studies, or media in relation to aesthetics, and so on. And these differences have been playing out in how research is actually being positioned.
NM That’s very interesting. So you’re saying that in part because of the willingness of designers to experiment with methods from different traditions, problems of interdisciplinarity are acutely felt in their practice?
HM Yes
NM That’s very interesting. But, do you think that some of these problems also have to do with the fact that these nonconventional research methods, like prototyping or probes as well as digital methods, are performative methods? Isn’t it challenging for everyone, not just designers, to grasp how we can be serious about knowledge while also acknowledging that research devices contribute to generating the phenomena that we study?
HM Yes. That’s actually one of the arguments I want to make. There is also the problem of self-reflexivity. The design researchers that I was working with were trained not to self-reflexive on their positionality in relation to the research knowledge that they generate. So they tend to write themselves out of the research accounts that they produce, even though their individual sensibilities, aesthetics and professional orientations are a central part of their design practice and research. So you find that there is a disparity between the active and engaged nature of design inquiry and the methodological accounts that forge a distance between the design researcher and the design inquiry.
NM For social scientists and for philosophers it can be difficult to move beyond a representational framework. It's about making knowledge. Isn’t it also hard to sustain this when you come from a design background, where you’re maybe told that knowing the world is not your primary competence?
HM There’s also the idea that you have to separate what you call research from what you call design in that process. But in reality, both are actually very closely related. Because of their training and disciplinary legacies, designers are taught to separate out the design work in a way that is almost mystical. Many people talk about ‘intuition’, for example, as a way of signalling that they are not able to articulate how they came to the knowledge they are producing.

Fig. 1. The Energy Babble device.

Fig. 1. The Energy Babble device.

NM [Gestures to nearby device; cf. Fig. 1.] That, by the way, is a probe that was designed in a project led by Bill Gaver, Mike Michael, Alex Wilkie, Tobie Kerridge and colleagues, as part of the Inventing Energy Communities Project. It's called the Babble.
HM Babble. Yes. Energy Babble. I think I've heard about this.
NM I had it in my home, actually, when my child was around two or three years old, we played with it.
HM How does it work?
NM It's like a community radio. It takes snippets from the Internet, it takes snippets from the electricity grid, and from other users. But because I had it at home, I would use it when I would be with my child, and so my kid was very much part of interacting with this device. It raised, for me, questions around play: we would be literally playing-she was three years old-and we would be singing 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' into the radio. It's different from the ironic play of adults, with their undivided attention. It was challenging. There are different kinds of playing. But it was very interesting, the Babble would play crazy snippets about frying sausages and that was good.

Could you say a bit about what your personal trajectory: how did you arrive into this space?
HM I have a PhD in Media and Communication from the University of Oslo. After my PhD, I developed links with the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. I got my researcher position as part of an effort to bring more research into the design school. As it became a university, too, there was a need for academic staff to do research. It required new kinds of teaching. For PhDs in Design, for example, the questions were: how does one write a methods chapter, and how do you talk about methods? It was through working with researchers at the school on such issues that my interest in design methods kind of developed.
NM OK. But how did you shift from being a Media Communications scholar pulled into design to someone who became a participant in design research problems?
HM Take an example of a PhD student who had to design a project that was based on his individual practice. So when he comes to the problem of writing about his methods, he looks at the existing literature, mostly from the social sciences. That doesn't really help him a lot. So we have to then sit down and try to develop frameworks, methodological frameworks that truly reflect the actual nature of the enquiry that the person is conducting.

So strangely, I ended up becoming a kind of advocate of the use of design methods as research methods by designers, who were potentially sceptical, because they were trained to separate design and research. So I was arguing that one could use this as actually a method, and actually give an account of it, and frame it in a similar way one would frame, for example, the use of interview.
NM You started the project in September 2016. What have you been doing in the last months, and do you have any findings or hunches about what you're going to find out?
HM I have been doing interviews with PhD students and researchers in design, asking them about their projects, their methods and their use of design methods. I have also been reflecting on my own experience, because I have been supervising and involved in a lot of research projects myself, so I'm also using myself as a research subject. I'm also using workshops, exploratory workshops, as one of the ways in which I'm exploring the possibilities of these methods.
NM And in what ways do you feel that you have moved beyond the proposal?
HM I have been introduced to different milieus since I came to the UK, and there are many recent publications that have come out that I find interesting. I've also been having discussions with people at CIM. Nerea Calvillo came to a workshop that I organised in Oslo, where she presented her work. Up until now, I've been researching mostly among design researchers, but it would be interesting to explore design methods with people in other disciplines. Initially the idea I had was to examine how design methods could be applied in other disciplines.

However, the project has moved beyond that, as it now proposes an agenda for a designerly approach to methods. This approach is interdisciplinary. It is not simply a matter of applying design methods to other disciplines. It is about generating knowledge through making and experimenting. It is an approach to generating methods that are oblique, playful, and disruptive. It draws on techniques from design practice, but also from other craft disciplines, performance art, literary theory, architecture, but also the social sciences as well.
NM As a last question, what would you like to come out of the project?
  I am currently working on a book where I develop these ideas further. I am also designing an artefact that would embody the approach to methods that I am suggesting. It is a methods kit that suggests ways of learning how to use design techniques as research methods by engaging in specially designed exercises. The book would offer a series of profound reflections on how we can create knowledge that can bring alternative futures into view by making, experimenting, and disrupting the way we look at our everyday. It draws on examples ranging from staging events on the street to sending students on foraging expeditions, from forging fictional characters to creating artifacts.

What I would particularly like to come out of the project is to see the discussion on design approaches to interdisciplinary methods developed further. This discussion goes beyond just the design disciplines.

One area where a designerly approach to methods can be particularly interesting is in futures research. It can be useful in addressing phenomena such as climate change. I recently presented a paper at the Anticipation 2017 conference in London, and I was glad to see that talk about design approaches and methods generated a lot of interest. I hope this goes further.