Why time frames are so important for design research

Design research comes in many flavours. Quite often different perspectives can lead us to setup our approaches in opposition to other ways of doing things. I’d like to make the case for thinking about time as a useful frame-work for acknowledging difference without presenting closely related practices as arch-rivals.

If we focus far into the future, the subject of design research plainly becomes less clearly defined. We can draw lines of possibility forward from today to meet a distant future but need to fragment those lines into scenarios that cast a wide net. This perspective, which I’m going to call far-future, often entails looking at large-scale trends, quite rightly as at that distance our ability to perceive detail is severely curtailed. Research at this perspective is about drawing a picture of the changing world we might have to design for.

Dialling back the zoom and looking into the near-future, say 2-5 years from now, we are looking at an entirely different type of research. This research has firm connections to the present. We’re looking at the outcome of strategic decisions and programmes undertaken right now. The trends we’re examining are often present in embryonic form today, possibly in technology, possibly in cultural practices, quite often in the form of existing products or services that are yet to find their mature form. This type of research is now grounded in real experiences and we can create rich, nuanced understanding of what that world might be like by engaging with real people, understanding it’s embryonic form in their lives now and helping them imagine their lives a short time into the future.

Next we focus our lens firmly on today. Here we see flesh and blood prototypes, things that we can hold in our hands right now, things we can use and measure the usage of. This is the perspective occupied most often by User Experience researchers who are developing and shipping a living, breathing product.

These perspectives can be cast in opposition to each other, but viewed as time-frames, each provides a unique and necessary perspective at a precisely appropriate moment.

This time-framework perspective of the future draws on the comparative method and Michel Foucault’s archaeological/genealogical methods that can be hugely illuminating when looking at the past, and so it’s worth noting that the lines of ideas that we can draw from today into the future will all eventually come to pass in some form and stretch back into the past. The final perspective that we need to incorporate into a time-framework of design research must be the history of all the ideas that have brought us to today. Their trajectory is what carries us forward and establishes the direction of the lines we take as we look forward into the near and far-future.

How do you differentiate these research activities in your work? Are the lines clear or do they blur? Can time-frames help you to avoid boundary-policing and integrate your design research activities?