The investigation presented in this dissertation has been motivated by a fundamental question in design research: how can/should/do we understand design activity? In addressing this question, a study of design practice at an ICT development company was conducted. The analyses of the data collected in this study have been undertaken at varying levels of granularity and have selectively applied sociological analytical techniques. This enables a three-pronged contribution to design research—one that reports an understanding of design practice, one that addresses practical issues of constructing a study of design activity, and one that reflects on principles of research methodology in generating such an understanding.
This dissertation presents evidence from a longitudinal ethnographically-informed study for the irremediably social nature of designers' activities. This study reveals aspects of this nature that have not been articulated in previous accounts, and finds further evidence for some claims that have been advanced previously by other researchers. It is argued from this ethnographic data that designers see their work as a historically-situated activity. Designers make sense of their circumstances and act with reference to their historical associations with other people, entities and projects. In this regard, designers' act within what might be termed a 'historically-conditioned horizon of awareness'. Designers view themselves and their possibilities for action in historically contingent ways, which are evidenced from the ethnographic account.
This large-grained, ethnographic analysis has been augmented by a smaller-grained analysis of a single, informal design meeting. Through this fine-grained analysis it is demonstrated that the technical issues that arise are inseparable from the social issues and context in which these technical issues are raised—this social context shapes and is shaped by these same issues. Furthermore, it is demonstrated that (and how) designers employ the ongoing context of the conversation as a resource for proposing and developing design ideas and argumentation. It also emerges from this analysis that designers hold social values that prove stubbornly resistant to 'ordinary’ rationale.
Taken together, these analyses reveal a glimpse of the range of resources that designers employ in managing their circumstances in the course of designing. Formal structures are used, informal relationships are used, use context scenarios are created 'on the f l / for purposes at hand, all kinds of argumentation—social and technical, are used seamlessly and interchangeably, and are shaped to the purposes and settings at hand. These resources are documented with accounts from the study. Implications for design education, theory, and practice are discussed.
This thesis also presents significant methodological reflections in light of the types of data collected and analytic orientations used to make sense of that data. In particular, interpretive and ethnomethodological analyses of design activity are presented and distinguished. It is argued that interpretive perspectives offer endless ways of refraining, refocussing and reconceptualising design activity in light of the empirical evidence marshalled in their support. Additionally, many interpretive accounts can be easily employed to the construction of policies for design education and practice. In distinction to interpretivism, ethnomethodology offers design research a powerful set of conceptual tools with which to diagnose its own practice and results, and through which to illuminate aspects of design practice that are not available to other analytic orientations. Through a reflexive examination of the use of these interpretive and ethnomethodological approaches in the present study, it is revealed how the purpose of the study, the data that is collected in response to it, and its presentation in the account, shape the structure of design activity that can be 'demonstrated' or 'evidenced' by the research account.
A methodological approach to design research has been demonstratively argued in this thesis: that the purpose of the study should be the principal resource for choices of method and approach; that the researcher should proceed with caution as to how data is used as evidence of the phenomenon of interest; that the researcher's decisions in this regard are what reveal the epistemological assumptions that must be invoked to support his/her use of data as evidence of the phenomena; and that the legitimacy of the data collected in response to the purpose of the study (and its subsequent use in the account) should be the principal criteria for evaluating any study.
This dissertation makes three principal contributions to design research. Firstly, it demonstrates clearly the social reality of the activity of designing. In this course, it identifies previously unacknowledged aspects of this process, such as how designers employ the context of the discussion as a resource for the resolution of issues raised within it, and the importance of designers' historicity. Secondly, it addresses significant issues for the practice of design research, including how to approach a design study where data is at different levels of granularity. Thirdly, the discussion and consideration of methodological and analytic orientations to data of design activity is itself a valuable resource for design studies.