Reflections from the Trenches and the Stacks

In my Network Visualization class, we’ve been talking a lot about methodologies for design research studies. On that topic, I recently read an interesting article by Michael Sedlmair, Miriah Meyer, and Tamara Munzner: Design Study Methodology: Reflections from the Trenches and the Stacks, after conducting a literature review to determine best practices, they realized that there were no best practices – at least not organized in a coherent, practical to follow way.

Thus, the authors aim to develop “holistic methodological approaches for conducting design studies,” drawn from their combined experiences as researchers as well as from their review of the literature in this field. They define the scope of their work very clearly: they aim to develop a practical guide to determine methodological approaches in “problem-driven research,” that is, research where “the goal is to work with real users to solve their real-world problems.”

Their first step in doing so is to define a 2-dimensional space in which any proposed research task can be placed. One axis looks at task clarity (from fuzzy to crisp) and the other looks at information location (from head to computer). These strike me as helpful axises for positioning a study and for thinking about what kinds of methodologies are appropriate. If your task is very fuzzy, for example, you may want to start with a study that clarifies the specific tasks which need to be examined. If your task is very crisp, and can be articulated computationally…perhaps you don’t need a visualization study but can rather do everything algorithmically.

From my own experience of user studies in a marketing context, I found these axes a very helpful framework for thinking about specific needs and outcomes – and therefore appropriate methodologies – of a research study.

The authors then go into their nine-stage framework for practical guidance in conducting design studies and their 32 identified pitfalls which can occur throughout the framework.

The report can be distilled more briefly into 5 steps a researcher should go through in designing, implementing, and sharing a study. These five stages should feed into each other and are not necessarily neatly chronological:

  1. Before designing a study think carefully about what you hope to accomplish and what approach you need. (Describe the clarity/information location axes are a tool for doing this).
  2. Think about what data you have and who needs to be part of the conversation.
  3. Design and implement the study
  4. Reflect and share your results
  5. Throughout the process, be sure to think carefully about goals, timelines and roles

Their paper, of course, goes into much greater detail about each of these five steps. But overall, I find this a helpful heuristic in thinking about the steps one should go through.

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