How to experiment meaningfully in design

Thought experiments cost nothing to test.

Experiments are valuable to discover newness but can often be costly and comes with the risk of failing. Yet experiments can also start from thought experiments, which cost close to nothing to test. Tze shares how to experiment meaningfully in different kinds of projects, and how the spectrum of experimentation can lead the design process.

Summary

  • Leading projects through experimentation comes in various forms depending on the project scope and requirements
  • Experimenting in a research project could come in the form of making hypotheses that are provocative enough to elicit response from people (i.e. sacrificial ideas), which speeds up the process and enriches the data collected
  • Experimenting from a technical perspective could mean new technology, interactions, or interfaces, which are about new possibilities without a clear end goal in mind (i.e. exploring and experimenting out of pure curiosity)—the outcomes of the experiments are then post-rationalised
  • Because experimentation carries a different meaning to different teams (e.g. design research, industrial design, creative technology), you get the whole spectrum of experiments to inform different parts of the design process—this intersection is where the spark lies
  • Experiments start as a thought experiment, which costs nothing and are easily implemented and tested
  • The cost goes up with the fidelity of the experiment, in trying to visualise or make tangible the experiment for testing, and that is when you will need to justify the cost with the impact/benefit of the experiment

Full Transcript

That’s when you start to look for justification, like would a client pay for that? Would we pay for that, because it helps us learn something?

DESIREE
In STUCK, we’ve heard quite a bit about how Stickies or designers here at STUCK like to lead with experimentation. So how do you actually do that? Like, how do you use experimentations as a way to guide projects that you do?

TZE
I think on a simple level, what happens is, on projects where… I think where it’s interesting is on projects that have a research scope, even though there’s a scope for research, if we’re able to make some guesses at the start, you know, to hedge some bets and say, hey, these are areas which are interesting, or these may be directions, which might be provocative to be able to elicit a response from the people that we’re testing with—that’s something that we’re glad to do.

Because one, it speeds up the process. And two, it makes the research process a lot more rich, especially in categories where there’s been a lot of consumer research already.

And, you know, there is already a lot of latent information, either from the clients perspective, or from our perspective, because we’ve done similar projects in the past about, you know, the particular kinds of challenges, or kinds of scenarios that this particular respondent is already facing, or particular kind of industry or category is really facing. Then having some ideas, which we call them sacrificial ideas, which go in at the early phase and say, hey, what if this were the case?

And those provocative ideas tend to be a really interesting way to open up conversation, and also to shape the dialogue in a way that gets to the interesting part faster.

So I think there’s experiments on that level, which are maybe more conceptual, about, hey, if we wanted to find information about whether this is interesting or valuable to the people we’re designing for—experiments can fill that role.

From a technical perspective, sometimes it’s about new technology, or about new kinds of interactions or interfaces. Then the experiments are actually less directed in that sense. But it’s more about, hey, with these new possibilities, what can happen? And sometimes those experiments tend to be less goal-oriented. They’re not really designed with a particular audience in mind. They’re designed with literally just, hey, wouldn’t it be interesting? More about to fulfil that sense of curiosity.

And then the outcomes, then are post-rationalised, like, hey, we can do this with this certain kind of technology, who would it make sense for?

Sometimes that’s parked, and it becomes useful for a project down the line. Sometimes it’s just to fulfil the team’s own curiosity because it motivates them to understand things better, or to understand what is happening with new technology, what are the boundaries of old technology.

I think that’s something that we also really like to do—not just looking at new technology, but what are the older things out there that is kind of mainstream, and can we use them in non-mainstream ways? I think that’s also kind of interesting, because that’s really efficient.

DESIREE
It’s very interesting, because I personally find it quite difficult to be so exploratory with, yeah like you mentioned right, with no particular audience or no particular application in mind. Yeah, is this purely what you mentioned about driven by this curiosity? Or how is this done, you know, with this sort of very open exploration?

TZE
Yeah, I think you can’t just do one without the other. Which is why when the team works, there’s multiple domains, right? There’s the team that’s really focused on doing the research, understanding changes in business trends, user trends, and other shifts in maybe industry or marketplace. And they kind of have a perspective on what might be around the corner, or what might be pain points or what might be opportunities for users. So then they kind of have that perspective from having done a lot of research work or reading a lot of reports and articles. And then you have the design team who have their pulse on slightly different things. They have a pulse on what is upcoming in terms of consumer technology or different kind of industry specific technologies. They have a pulse on what are interesting aesthetics or interactions which are happening. And then you have the labs team, which is looking at, hey, how can we leverage technology for interesting market activations or interesting interactions.

And I think, then you have a whole spectrum, right? When you say experiments to any one of these teams, they think of experiments in different ways. And how that informs different parts of the design process, then becomes the interesting part.

And so I think back to your question right, you know, how do you think about experiments? I think at the very basic level, you have experiments which are thought experiments, like, hey wouldn’t it… that costs you nothing, right? And it just goes by kind of testing ideas with colleagues, or with clients, or with users. And those really kind of cost nothing.

The thing that gets complicated or starts to get expensive is when you go up in fidelity. So when you go up from a thought experiment to, hey, let’s visualise this, to let’s make something work, let’s make something tangible, let’s make something experienceable. That’s when you start to have to invest in your experiments.

That’s when you start to look for justification, like would a client pay for that? Would we pay for that because it it helps us learn something? Or would this help feed a body of knowledge that will be useful in a future project?

THE STUCK IN DESIGN TEAM
Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong

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