Pondering “Imponderabilia” and Design Research
September 24, 2019

  • Ethnography and Critical Design Practice by Tim Plowman
  • “Methods: Inspiration Phase” from the Field Guide to Human-Centered Design

Imponderabilia: “a series of phenomena of great importance which cannot possibly be recorded by questioning or computing documents, but have to be observed in their full actuality....such things as the routine of a man’s working day, the details of his care of the body, of the manner of taking food and preparing it...”

— Bronislaw Malinowski, 1922

When designing for a group of people outside of one’s own experience, it’s crucial to make sure that the product actually provides a real solution to a real problem. Most design is produced without primary ethnographic research (Plowman). This means that a lot of the time, designers are creating from an egocentric perspective with their own biases about the needs and desires of a group they are external to. However, it’s hard for people to identify their own cultural biases from an objective perspective because our participation and contributions in our own cultures is a subconscious act. Designers are responsible to make the effort to analyze the cultural habits and ideas which they hold and which others hold and then to synthesize and identify opportunities for learning. So, how can one go about this learning?

Secondary research is a great way for people to learn more about a group. However, this can only give us an understanding of people on a sociological or anthropological level, rather than a personal one. Primary research and human interaction is crucial in fully understanding human beings beyond the theoretical level. When this understanding is sought in pursuit of a goal, as is the case for researchers, interviews are a great tool to learn someone’s perspective in an interaction curated for the topic of research. Interviews provide the opportunity to interact with real people, ideally in their real environments in order to gain understanding on an empathetic level. Conducting interviews in the target group’s space — whether it be their home, workspace, or any other space in which they spend meaningful time — allows interviewers to learn even more about their mindsets, behaviors and lifestyles. Plowman refers to this as learning about a person’s “situatedness”, in which the artifacts that make up their surroundings, along with the way people consume and interact with them, tell the story of a person’s relationship to life. By grasping a deeper knowledge of a person’s ideas about life, it is easier for an ethnographer to read between the lines of an interviewee’s verbal responses.

This post exists within a series of reflections on  topics and coursework from my Human-Centered Design class, taught by Marty Maxwell Lane at the University of Arkansas.