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March 02, 2012

Authors' Work Fosters Design Methods

By Heidi Opdyke

Design BookIt was a perfect blend of design ideas.

Bella Martin (MDes'04) wanted a way to help companies embrace the power of human-centered research. Bruce Hanington studies how different methods work.

Their complementary approaches resulted in "Universal Methods of Design: 100 Ways To Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions" (Rockport Publishers).

While attending Carnegie Mellon, Martin structured her thesis work around visualizing ways to help designers win arguments with companies where human-centered research was not yet a consistent part of the culture. Hanington, associate professor and director of graduate studies for the School of Design, was her adviser.

"Designers should involve users in the whole process of research, from understanding them before they design, to designing with them as they design, and getting meaningful feedback from them when they've prototyped and have designs to evaluate," Hanington said.

Eight years later, the two took their original work and expanded it into the book. "Universal Methods of Design" is now the sixth in a series by Rockport Publishers; with the first book being one of Martin's and Hanington's favorites: "Universal Principles of Design" by Will Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler. Following the series format, "Universal Methods of Design" offers 100 examples of design processes including case studies and illustrations from industry and research. A number of them are from School of Design and Human-Computer Interaction Institute faculty, students and alumni, and from companies such as Microsoft, eBay, Citrix, Adaptive Path and MAYA.

Martin said the real-world examples used on every page of the book were picked because her thesis found evidence that visuals and case studies help to demystify what designers do.

"The book is for designers who create products and services: very experienced designers who know 75 user research methods will hopefully learn 25 new ones, and we hope that design students will come to see the methods as the tools for our discipline, just as sketching and software are our tools," Martin said. "I also hope it will end up on client, product manager and developer bookshelves - the book really was designed with them in mind, too."

Hanington said the book is widely adaptable for designers in a variety of ways, and the examples from product, interface, communication and environmental design speak to that.

Martin added: "I hope that people who are not designers - or new to user-centered design - will look at the methods and think, 'Oh wow, that's all it is? Our team can do that.'"

"There are some design professions where it's less common to see these methods in practice. It's more common in interaction design and industrial design, but it's gaining a lot of inroads in communication design, graphic design and architecture, and the methods are equally powerful there," he said.

Carnegie Mellon's School of Design has a long history with a well-grounded reputation in human-centered design. Hanington teaches a research methods course for first-year graduate students and an undergraduate human-centered design course called "How People Work."

"We felt that the book itself is very human-centered because it's well laid out, and designed to be accessible - both in terms of how you find the information but also in the way that it's communicated and conveyed," Hanington said. "I also think that using the visual case studies goes a long way in communicating the methods, because that's how designers are used to looking at things."

Martin, now working as a senior interaction design consultant at Delta Airlines in Atlanta, said she is ever thankful for her professors at the School of Design and HCII. She said the book was partially born from her hopes to work with them again.

"I am always amazed at the doors that open when I say 'I'm a designer and researcher with a master's from Carnegie Mellon,'" Martin said. "It is amazing what power those words have. It is also a great feeling to know how to deliver on those words, as I am confident in what I learned there and still deeply identify with the philosophy of the program."

"The thing that worked out as a very nice balance between me and Bella is that I'm much more versed and comfortable writing about those early upfront, more qualitative methods that take place in user qualitative studies, design ethnography and exploratory research through to participatory design and co-design," Hanington said. "Bella is much more experienced in practice, and well versed in the later stages such as testing, evaluation and methods that go all the way through the launch and monitor of a product." It was this type of synergy that brought the authors, and ultimately this book, together.

"Universal Methods of Design" is available from Rockport Publishers and is online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.