Design thinking

A Framework for People Driven Design

Michael Waltinger & Thomas Nilsson

Design and design research are not random procedures. What people do and feel, why they do and feel these things, and how we tap into and design for their doing and feeling follows a certain framework. This underlying framework governs our work, regardless of whether we are aware of its existence or not. In this article we aim to translate that framework into a coherent model.

The thinking behind the framework – and some of the terms we use – are based on Noam Chomsky’s linguistic thinking (Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965), complemented by sociological thinking inspired by Anthony Giddens’ Structuration Theory (The Constitution of Society, 1984). The benefits of the framework in our daily design practice are:
  • To systematically frame, explain and talk about what we are doing, often with clients or colleagues. In this sense, the framework gives us a language and a logic.
  • To gain a cartography of our current thinking and doing. In this sense, the framework is a thinking tool and vantage point for refining and innovating our own proprietary processes and methods.
  • To provide an at-a-glance “cheat sheet” for reference when drafting design (research) projects in order to remain aware of the critical steps and the overall picture. In this sense, the framework serves as a tool for quality control in terms of ensuring methodological and procedural rigor and coherence.
We encourage others to appropriate the framework in similar – or entirely different – ways.

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Human-centered design (HCD) as described, for instance, by Don Norman (The Design of Everyday Things, 2013), puts human needs, capabilities and behaviors first. As designers, we aim to design for people – and to make their everyday lives better. We want to relieve pain points and unpleasant experiences. We want to design for people’s preferences, desires and values. For the purpose of this article, we call these elements the deep structure. At the core of this deep structure is the human decision-making process, which is largely made up of three factors: rational thinking, habits and moods (moods being an extension of emotions). The relative influence of each factor varies by individual and depends, for example, on the complexity and consciousness of a purchase decision.
The problem is that many of the underlying “social” aspects of the deep structure are never (or rarely ever) directly observable – as opposed to the more apparent “natural” aspects. Think “a longing for more flexibility in urban transportation” vs. “a broken chair”: we can directly perceive the latter but not the former.

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What we can observe, however, are people’s actions in time and space – their performances, practices and processes. For the purpose of this article, we call these actions the surface structure.

In design (research), we do not simply contemplate this surface structure in a lax manner, but use certain methodological tools to ensure that we tap into the surface with rigor. We typically do so by using design research methods such as observation, interviews, mapping, and various types of co-creation and co-analysis. Here, we refer to this as structure analysis: examining the surface structure (the previously mentioned performances, practices and processes – or, more simply, what people feel, say and do) through design research methods. Again, we do this because it’s the only way we can find out about the otherwise inaccessible underlying deep structure we want to design for (remember: people’s preferences, needs or values). Another way to describe this logic is to say that the deep structure we cannot see condenses on the surface structure that we can see; thus, examining the latter allows us to draw conclusions about the former.

However, truly understanding the deep structure is neither enough for great design nor is it the only thing that governs what people do and feel and why they do and feel those things. Otherwise, everyone with a similar background or culture would have similar preferences, needs and values. Daily life experience alone teaches us that this is not the case. So there must be something else that influences the deep structure and, as designers, this is what we need to identify. Here we call that “something else” the context structure, which specifically consists of:

  • Specific situations in which certain things happen to people, e.g., early in the morning following a late night work shift;
  • Social roles that people play, e.g., mother, president;
  • Educational or economic resources and privileges available to people, e.g., an elderly woman with a double PhD; and
  • The class or milieu that people come from, e.g., working-class background, living in a deprived area.

To sum it up, the framework as outlined above complements and extends human-centered design thinking by proposing an interrelated trinity: since humans are always “actors in context,” the context structure influences the processes of the deep structure and, hence, what happens on the observable surface structure. Researching and understanding this trinity through structural analysis is the key to great people-driven design.

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Let’s turn to a practical example that illustrates how this framework plays out when deployed in a design context. When a client approached us with the assignment to enhance a sports bar experience, we started out by interviewing (potential) customers to understand their motives and needs in visiting sports bars. We investigated what they did at sports bars, why they did it, and who they went with. We drilled down to a level of detail such as preference in tv screen positioning, noise level perceptions of the surroundings, group dynamics and much more. Based on these details we drew extensive maps that brought to life the deep structure we unearthed by performing structure analysis (interviews) on the surface structure (sports bar practices discussed by interviewees).

Nevertheless, for this project we felt that we could go even deeper – right into the tacit layers of behavior. We decided to investigate further and immersed ourselves in “lived reality” to more deeply observe and sense-check what could truly elevate the sports bar experience. We rented a sports bar, going in-context in a group setting with 35 people that knew each other.

This was the study’s turning point as it enabled us to unlock new insights that enriched the picture with elements from the context structure. We found, for example, that different groups in the sports bar wanted to be spatially encapsulated because they felt uneasy being in close proximity to fans of opposing teams. Hence, seat backs needed to be higher to create a sense of protected intimacy and to ensure a sense of belonging.

Unveiling these insights was enabled by looking into the context structure. When we first collected insights, mainly derived from digging into the deep structure in a rather neutral conference room environment, we could rely only on user memory and ex post-constructions. Immersive research in the context sphere allowed us to unlock deeper, tacit customer needs based on their behaviors as “actors in the context.”

The sports bar case outlined above serves as just one example to illustrate the phenomenon we’ve observed over and over again during a half century of practicing design (research): the interconnectedness of surface structure, deep structure and context structure. In response to these observations, we developed our Framework for People Driven Design (Research) to systematize these relationships for our current and future design practice.