Encouraging Speculation in Design Research

For a client in the technology sector who wanted to look 3-5 years ahead, we recently teamed up with design and research studio Superflux to look at how we could encourage both storytelling (narrative) and speculation in the design research process. The design research project focused on multi-device usage, looking at how people interact with and manage the multiple devices and screens in their ecosystem. The goal was to both explore and capture current practices as well as speculate on scenarios they’d like to see in the future, jumping off from their current desires and struggles.

With a broad, open-ended research topic and exploratory approach, it was a difficult task to design a research tool or activity that could both provide a framework for capturing experiences and speculation(s), without narrowing down the possibilities too far. Keeping this balance in mind, Superflux designed and made a kit we called ‘Trigger Materials’ – a set that includes blank slates or ‘tiles’ (white and green), markers, and cloths to wipe them clean.

The Trigger Materials were first used during the interview process. A set of white tiles in the shape of different devices helped us to lay out with participants their existing device ecosystem, for example a smartphone, smart TV, and nest thermostat. We then used this as a starting point to map out an existing journey of theirs using these devices, using tiles with ‘points’ on them that can fit together in different arrangements to tell a story. Physical tiles that could be moved around, rejoined, or wiped clean provided both a collaborative and hands-on way for participants to share their experiences with us.

The Trigger Materials were an effective and engaging method to capture existing narratives around multi-device usage, but we also wanted to provoke speculation on how their desired future might look with these multiple devices. The green tiles came in at this stage, a set of ambiguously shaped tiles that look familiar, yet somehow strange at the same time. We had participants write on the green tiles as a way to provoke speculation, for example thinking about ‘smart lights’ in the home, how devices could be more seamlessly integrated with each other, or how audio and voice control could play a role in the future.

After our interviews, we also held a workshop with the researchers to use the Trigger Materials among ourselves to speculate on future journeys. We used the white tiles to capture what these potential future journeys could look like. Overall, the Trigger Materials served as both an engaging and inspiring design research tool, and we’re looking forward to seeing how it can be used in other research projects and contexts going forward.