A speculative blog post about changing how we engage with issue professionals in the design and production of issue maps within EMAPS

Ahead of our two-day workshop in London later this week, I present some suggestions that follow on from our discussions in the project team about we can engage productively with people who might use the issue maps we are creating in the project. As I understand it, the role of The Young Foundation in the EMAPS project is primarily about helping to engage with people beyond the project team, specifically with the communities of issue professionals working on the two topics.

This post builds on recent emails and skype meetings between us; our small workshop in Oxford in October (see posts by Michele and Benedetta in Milano and by me afterwards, with comments by other EMAPS team members), as well as our June meeting in London (see posts by Tommaso) and discussions about the design process by Milano and Paris.

I will cover

  • a narrative about the project’s trajectory to date in terms of engaging with issue professionals, written from a personal perspective as someone working within YF on EMAPs since March 2012 (when I was employed there, and now freelance);
  • a brief introduction to some concepts and methods from the fields of Participatory Design and Design Research, which offer some approaches that could move EMAPS towards a more participatory mode of designing/using maps in the context of a research project;
  • a speculative description of what these concepts and methods might look like in practice, if the EMAPS team decided to use them.

Part 1: Narrative: Engagement in year one of EMAPS

 

I would say EMAPS started with product-centric production mode of designing issues maps, as follows:

Mode 1 – Product-centric model

EMAPS researchers created the maps on ageing, based to some extent on some of the domain-expertise of London about ageing and complemented by other work in Amsterdam and Paris. YF, in the role of disseminator, then identified and invited some issue professionals to come and engage with the maps. This lead to the June workshop in London, in which EMAPS researchers sat on mixed tables of about 25 issue professionals, observing and listening to how the people responded to the maps and answering queries.

During discussions after that workshop at our June meeting, we decided to modify this so that we designed maps more directly in relation to issue professionals’ ways of working, so then our map-creation-and-testing process changed into Mode 2.

 

Mode 2 – Moving towards a use-centric model

YF hired a freelance researcher/designer Kat Jungnickel, who engaged in participant observation with one issue professional, Maria Parsons, to articulate (research) questions in her work and in the professional worlds of her colleagues; Tommaso then translated these into questions that EMAPS could make maps in answer to, which lead to a collection of methods/data/maps, agreed with Amsterdam, Paris, Milano, and London, and a production schedule to make them.

Paris, Amsterdam, Milano and London went through a process of designing and producing these methods/data/maps.

In October in Oxford, YF invited Maria Parsons and three other issue professionals to use the first iteration of the new maps brought to Oxford by Milano, to achieve tasks related to their work (tasks that we set in based on discussions with Maria, that she said were meaningful in her world). Milano and London then shared within the EMAPS team our analysis of what happened, and Paris, Milano and Amsterdam continued to revise and refine the maps with input from London.

During November and December, YF identified issue professionals to invite to what we had started calling the issue safari. Ahead of the event we asked them to identify a question they are working on and to reflect on methods they would usually use to engage with it. Paris, Amsterdam, Milano and London worked together closely to design the latest iteration of maps in relation to these issue professionals and the issues they told us they are bringing. The latest versions of the maps included better descriptions and legends on the maps, as well as new descriptions of how the maps were made and the data used to create them, written to make them more accessible to non-specialists edited and proof-read by London.

At the issue safari in London this Wednesday 12 December, we will have six groups of issue professionals joining us for 2.5 hours. Facilitators will support them to use the maps to address their questions and reflect on this as they do so through some structured questions, the responses to which are captured by the facilitators. Also present in these teams, the EMAPS researchers will observe and discuss (mis)use of the maps. Later, we will then reflect as a group of researchers on what happened and what we learned.

What you have just read is what I think we have being doing, although my account is of course open to other interpretations. I have some concerns:

  • There remains in the EMAPS project a strong disconnect between the methods/data/maps and the uses people might put them too, conceptually and methodologically by which I mean the concepts we use within the project, and the methods by which we work together to create and explore the maps.
  • There is insufficient involvement by issue professionals in co-designing maps with us. Instead we rely on asking them for feedback in a workshop (eg as described above for ageing, or reviewing wireframes, for climate change adaptation) or observe them looking at or trying to use the maps, out of their worlds.

As EMAPS ends its first year looking at the issue of ageing and move into our next issue, I think we as the project team could benefit from working differently, moving even further from a product-centric model towards a way of designing and exploring the maps, based on Participatory Design.

I will go on to describe what that means and why I think this would help, and finally what this could look like in practice.

 

Part 2: A Brief Introduction to Participatory Design

 

What follows is a very reduced version of some concepts that some of you know quite well, and is my own analysis/description, so is very partial. But since not everyone within EMAPS is familiar with them, I will start at the beginning with some core concepts.

“The user”

The imaginary person, who will be the one using the thing we design and who we are designing for. Problems with this: 1. There really can’t be a singular ideal user – it’s probably more realistic to identify several ideal types based on groups of people who have similar practices or tasks. 2. As Steve Woolgar has pointed out, when designing something we are also designing users – they do not pre-exist.

User-centred design

An academic/practitioner field dating from the 1970s in Human Computer Interaction. Influenced by psychology/cognitive science, this field introduced the concept of the user and what goes on in his or her mind as variables into design work. Key concepts: the user; tasks the user wants to perform; how the software/system makes representations of the user’s world for the user to respond to; giving feedback to the user so he/she knows the status of the system. Example methods: writing use cases; usability testing of prototypes to see if the tasks the user should perform are enabled by the software. Some problems: how to conceptualize the social worlds that shape individuals and their minds; how to actually find out what goes on in people’s minds during interactions with designed artefacts.

Participatory Design

An academic/practitioner field dating from the 1970s especially in Scandinavian countries, based on two ideas: a democratic intention to involve workers in the design of systems that will have effects on them, and using workers’ skills and knowledge as a resource when doing designing. Key concepts: designing as language games; designing for use before use. Example methods: co-design workshops; “design games”; creating and using mock-ups paper prototypes to enable skillful participation by users in the design process. Some problems: the separation between design and use; how to understand what goes on in users’ lives and worlds; how to work on projects supporting users you can’t identify.

Computer Supported Cooperative Work

An academic/practitioner field dating from the early 1990s. The basic idea is doing (ethnographic) research to understand the work practices of people and organizations, and using this analysis as the basis for designing new systems/software that will change these practices. Key concepts: interaction as embodied and collective; symbolic and material practices inside organizations. Some problems: how to translate the analysis of work practices and use this in designing, and how representations of practice (eg words, photos, videos) can be mobilized when designing; how to understand the limitations and possibilities of making such representations.

Research, design, and use (translated for an issue mapping project)

Research = the process and activities of understanding the users of the maps, their worlds and their practices, to inform design.

Design = the process and activities of generating and giving form to ideas that result in new methods/data/maps for users to use, inspired by the analysis of users’ worlds and by inspiration, through iterative prototyping to develop a better shared understanding of a future artefact and where it fits within existing or future practices

Use = what happens when the maps are in the users’ worlds, after design Some problems: 1/ Many projects don’t neatly fit into time-bounded phases labeled research, design and use. Even in iterative cycles of research, design, and use, there are very blurred boundaries between these concepts. 2/ If we are trying to design for use, some researchers have started to look at how it might be better to be designing “at use time” or “in the wild”. Instead of designing in the lab or studio, we can try to design with people in their worlds.

 

Part 3: Speculative description: Possibilities for EMAPS

 

First proposal: Concepts I think we could use within EMAPS

I first want to propose some concepts that I think would be useful to EMAPS and suggest they can be the basis of a shift to a third mode of designing the maps based in Participatory Design approaches. Obviously my focus is on the parts of the project that YF is involved in, so these may not be relevant or useful to some of the rest of the project.

Users as co-designers

We already seem to use the term “users” interchangeably with “issue professionals”. We could also think of some of them as “participants” and “co-designers” in the process of designing maps within EMAPS. We can aim for the maps to reach professionals we don’t know and won’t ever know. We could aim to understand participants’ socio-material worlds and their work practices and how these might change through their engagement with the EMAPS maps, but we would recognize that in a sense, the designing and using of the maps will never be finished.

Engagement with issue professionals

  • We could find some “lead users” in climate change adaptation within the organizations we are talking to (like weadapt) to work towards helping us create “design games” to involve others in co-designing methods/data/maps with us based on the ideas below.
  • We could move to an emphasis on designing with them, not for them.
  • We could recognize that their accounts of their world are important, but we also use social science approaches to create our own analyses of these accounts, about what goes on in their worlds which attend to the unspoken and unacknowledged, as well as what is recognized and claimed.
  • We could try to build in ways to find users who break the maps or use in ways we simply didn’t expect or anticipate.

 

From designing maps to co-creating possibilities

We could move from talking about designing issue maps, to thinking of our work as co-creating possibilities for issue professionals to engage with the methods/data/maps of issues in which they are actors, which they will do in ways we cannot fully anticipate and which will unfold in ways we cannot fully know or track. We could move towards designing in flexibility, openness and configurability in the maps to support these possibilities as opportunities for EMAPS researchers (and others) to learn from.

 

Prototyping as exploratory enquiry

We could move to thinking about an ongoing iterative process of creating and “testing” them, towards using them to open up and deepen an understanding of users’ worlds and practices. We could develop an attentiveness to how the methods/data/maps and the visualization of issues enacted in the maps might change these practices.

So here prototyping would be understood not as testing hypotheses (although for some defined aspects, this may be important) but rather as a process that is performative (it happens through people doing things together with things) and mutually constituted (the maps + the facilitators and researchers + the contexts in which people engage with the maps, all shape the interactions between people and the maps and therefore shape how we and they find them to be useful or well-designed maps). Hence a collective understanding unfolds through iterative cycles of prototyping, using methods which sometimes result in expanding possibilities and at other times, closes things down.

(References: Binder et al, 2011; Buscher et al 2011; Lury and Wakeford 2012)

 

Second proposal: Specific suggestions as to how the EMAPS project could proceed

Here I suggest how some of these ideas could be mobilized in practice to move EMAPS towards a new way of engaging with issue professionals in years two and three. These are just sketches, not fully developed proposals. This may have some implications for how the partners organize in relation to one another.

2.1 More cycles of participant observation

Like Kat Jungnickel did with Maria Parsons, I propose we invest resources in a researcher/designer with an academic training in ethnography, to study aspects of the worlds of climate change issue professionals, to analyze this in a way that opens up the analysis to non-ethnographers. Ideally this will be someone with knowledge of digital methods in ethnography (see Sarah Pink’s work) since for these professionals, we may not be able to study them in ways ethnographers typically would in the field. The point here is to elicit a deeper understanding within EMAPS of the social-material worlds of some professionals working on this issue, and study how the maps change/disrupt their practices, based on the argument that through so doing, we will design better maps that can be used by them but leaving open the possibilities for flexibility, openness and configurability.

2.2 Participatory co-located design workshop: A two-day event with mixed teams

Here I am inspired by the workshop at Goldsmiths run by Noortje Marres earlier this year that I and several other EMAPS researchers attended. What I want to take from this workshop, is the way the mixed teams

  • Included an issue professional (or someone willing to speak for one), with digital methods specialists, and
  • Used a process of picking a question, and selecting a digital method, and tried out using the method to get and present some data to answer the question, in only a few hours of working together.

In the context of EMAPS what I would suggest is

  • Including in each mixed team, someone from a communications/graphics/UI background, so the ideal teams would look like this: issue professionals x 2, digital methods specialists x 1, communications designer x 1 (someone with the ability to quickly mock up a map or a user interface for a digital interactive map and focus in detail on how users might interact with it, as part of the team’s work).
  • Facilitation by people with some experience of supporting such collaborative, mixed team events.
  • I would propose that we make this a longer event lasting up to two days, with opportunities to really build something rough-and-ready, rather than just trying out digital methods.

How this could work

  • The small mixed teams each identify an issue based on the professional’s work, select a method/data from the EMAPS repertoire, and possibly a type of map, and then prototype it together by trying to visualize it eg by drawing on paper, or using Illustrator to mock it up visually, and then over the course of several hours, work towards creating and demonstrating a working prototype;
  • Including several feedback sessions for peer review by other teams;
  • Finally a review session by the EMAPS researchers to reflect across the teams and the methods/data/maps they created and the ones they could have but did not.

 

2.3 Remote participatory design

Given the global and local nature of the communities working on climate change adaptation, it’s important to consider how we can adapt these design methods for situations where we might be able to persuade participants to work with us, but do so online, rather than in a two-day co-located workshop. Using the principles above, I do believe this is a participative process we can create that combines in particular the expertise of Paris, Amsterdam, Milano and London.

How this could work

2.3a We could host short (two-hour) co-design sessions using accessible web resources like Moodle or Google docs combined with say twitter and email, to involve a dispersed group in a joint activity, in a way that is accessible and opens up EMAPS to wider publics. Again we would aim to have mixed teams working together including an issue professional, a digital methods specialist, and a communication/UI designer. This would be a reduced but still meaningful version of some of the activities suggested above and would give us access to people we don’t know.

2.3b We could stage a longer collective project involving a dispersed group of participants with hosts/facilitators in specific places or organizations, combining real-time synchronous and asynchronous modes of participation for example over a month. Here are some places we can look for examples of how to involve people remotely in a collective design-based process, sometimes purely online and sometimes with a place-based aspect. None of them are doing the same as EMAPS – they are action-oriented, not research projects. But they demonstrate an expertise in staging public events that engage mixed groups from quite different backgrounds in doing participatory designing together as mode of public engagement.

Ideo.org: A collaborative platform to involve people in generating, sharing and reviewing ideas over a month, in response to briefs set by IDEO.org and its partners. https://www.ideo.org/

Participatory design events like Futuregov’s hack weekends which involve small mixed teams working on a challenge together, with fast feedback and expert reviews http://wearefuturegov.com/case-study/interactivism/

Global Service Jam: A collective time-limited design challenge in multiple cities round the world at once, again with mixed teams working on a single challenge together, with fast feedback cycles. http://www.globalservicejam.org/

 

I’ll stop here. These ideas are just suggestions for EMAPS to consider at our meeting later this week. I look forward to discussing them with you.

 

Lucy K

 

Further reading

Binder, T., de Michelis, G., Jacucci, G., Linde, P., Wagner, I. (2011). Design Things. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Büscher, M, John Urry and Katian Witchger (eds). (2011). Mobile Methods. London: Routledge.

Lury , C and N. Wakeford (eds). (2012) Inventive Methods: The Happening of the Social. Routledge.

 

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