I often forget that the entire world is designed. It may be a lack of reflection or observation, but I have to be reminded that public spaces don’t just sprout up completely formed. For that reason, I really enjoyed The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. I was intrigued by their research process and seemingly bottomless wells of patience. I love the idea that humans follow some patterns inherently and organically, so much so that you can predict their seating choices and foot patterns. As we discussed back in the Prototyping section, without focusing on the user and how he intends to utilize a product or, in this case, space, you can’t really successfully design anything. The author mentioned how their results may seem completely obvious and common sensical to us, but often their hypotheses ran wholly counter to their discoveries. As designers, we cannot rely on what we personally feel is best or what we assume to be objective truth without proper user-centric research.
That approach is why the Cultural Probes project worked so well. I love all the tactile ways they chose to communicate their ideas and further their research process. I think most people and companies wishing to obtain market research data would shy away from their methods because of its air of homemade-ness and lack of professionalism. But that is exactly why it worked. In this era, we can spot a marketing survey a mile away. We see the sleek sheen of a company seeking to understand how we think and what we desire and we run off in the opposite direction. But this, this reconnecting to space and time and physical things we can reach out and touch, without being unnecessarily and hipsterly nostalgic, is quite special. It is successful because it focuses on the human and how we interact with things and places and ideas.
When we value the user, the human in all of this, enough to step away from our deceptively shiny professionalism, enough to effectively stalk young raffish crowds in public spaces for three years, we come out the other side with real results, equipped with the data points to effect positive change.
UPDATE: The other point that I noticed is the opposite methods they utilized in gathering user data. In the Urban Spaces piece, they don’t trust the user to tell them the truth, perhaps rightfully so, as the user lies, or convinces himself of the lies, about what he wants from the space. In a survey, people may say they don’t want to hang out in crowds, but if you actually watch people, you see the truth that they do wish to socialize and exist in crowds. Whereas the designers in Cultural Probes trust the user so much that they send them off into the world with the packet and relinquish all control over it. They trust the user to come back with all sorts of information and data as the user sees fit, not as the designers request. These are actually two polarizing, extreme positions to user research.