Designing Complex Research

Using Experience Design to Plan and Organize Collaborations with the STEM and Healthcare fields

Presentation at Converge: 2017 AIGA Design Educator's Conference
2 June 2017
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA


Modern research endeavors that originate in STEM fields, especially those that overlap with healthcare, are increasingly multi-faceted and involve a complex network of interconnected roles and activities. As STEM continues to intersect with medical research, there will be an increasing need for designers to use their skills to also improve process rather than design artifacts. However, design’s involvement in these environments can still be somewhat trivial, being reduced to simple graphic design or artifact generation in service of more serious, scientific inquiry. To advance design’s position within these collaborative research engagements, researchers need to proactively inquire about ways to have more influence. This paper will detail one such inquiry through a case study of a recent collaborative project. In this study, design activities are used to both produce artifacts for a STEM-centric healthcare intervention and, more importantly, used as a way to organize and focus the research team’s process and activities.

The research project at the center of this case study is titled “Development of InterACT Intervention (mHealth) to promote medication adherence and blood pressure control inCKD.” (PI: Bartlett, Ellis). This project aims to develop a system where designed artifacts (a ‘smart’ pillbox and connectedmobile app) and in-person interventions are used to improve the way patients take medication. A design researcher was initially invited into the project to design the intervention artifacts. However, this design activity was only one small part in a much bigger endeavor, involving a complex network of input from colleagues in Medicine, Pharmacology, Nursing, Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, mHealth Communication, and Design. Because so many people were involved and it was impossible to work in tandem with each other constantly, the team started to experience a breakdown in communication. Specifically, there was confusion about how each researcher’s individual contributions connected and the final data collection experience. In their focused production of individual components, the team began to lose sight of the cumulative aims. 

Upon investigation of this problem, it became apparent that journey mapping—which is traditionally used to describe consumer experiences—could serve as way to plan and synchronize research efforts, thus enabling researchers to simultaneously see micro- and macro-level details. This case study will reveal how the transdisciplinary team utilized a design-lead exercise to plan their intervention and data collection processes. Outcomes from this investigation will be shared and include a detailed experience map and insights on how to replicate the process in other STEM and healthcare intervention projects. Design researchers are constantly exploring ways to situate themselves within academic research. The findings from this case study will provide one more outlet for them to utilize and build upon in the future.

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