van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes by Henry Baker (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the autumn of 2018 I took up the post of Data Steward in the Faculty of Industrial Engineering (). As I am not a designer myself (my academic background is in historical literature), a significant portion of my time is dedicated to understanding how research is conducted in the realm of design, in particular trying to compose an overview of the types of data collected & used by designers, as well as how current and upcoming ideas & tools for research data management might potentially benefit their activities. This is no mean feat, and at present I cannot lay claim to more than a superficial understanding of the inner workings of design research. Through day-to-day data steward activities – attending events, reading papers and, perhaps most revealing, conversations with individual researchers, to name but a few – the landscape of design research data gradually becomes more intelligible to me. Cobbling together a coherent picture from these disparate sources requires a modicum of dedicated thought, so it was my good fortune to have recently been invited to an event arranged by the Faculty of Health, Ethics & Society (HES) at Maastricht University to present my experiences with design data thus far. Here we discussed and compared research data practices, and my preparation for this discussion afforded me the opportunity to reflect a bit on what research data means in the field of design, how design methodology relates to other academic fields and what kinds of challenges and opportunities exist for handling data and making it more impactful within the discipline and beyond.

The HES workshop, organized early in February of this year, was a forum for the group to discuss how their work and the data they produce intersect with some of the issues currently being debated within academic communities. A specific goal was to evaluate some of the arguments originating in the (at times competing) discourses of Open Science and personal privacy. Topics of discussion included how one should make sociological and healthcare data FAIR, especially given that the materials collected in HES are often predominantly qualitative in nature: personal interviews, ethnographic field notes, etc. Questions surrounding these topics are broadly applicable to some qualitative types of data in design as well, e.g. the extent to which data should be shared, in what format and under what conditions. The slides from my talk are available here: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.2592280, and this blog post is intended to give them some context.

Research Data in Design

Maintaining an overview of the various types and amounts of data produced, analyzed and re-used within the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering is a core aspect of my work as a data steward, but it is an ongoing challenge due to the heterogeneity of data used by designers and the quantity of different projects simultaneously active. Some designers do market research involving i.a. surveys, others take sensor readings and yet others develop algorithms for improving the manufacturing process. Each of these, along with the many other efforts within IDE, merit their own suite of questions and concerns when it comes to openness and privacy. The more we understand data types and usage in a field, the better we can judge the impact of present and future actions germane to research data – open access initiatives, legislation (esp. the GDPR), shifts in policy or practice, etc. More importantly, we can predict how we might turn some of these to our advantage.

For instance, TU Delft recently instituted a policy that all PhD students will be required to deposit the data underlying their thesis. For new PhD students, this will simply be a part of the process, one step among the many novel activities they experience on the way to earning their PhD. The real challenge lies with members of my faculty, the experienced researchers and teachers, as well as myself, who will have to identify the value in applying this new policy to research data in their field. To do this we must ask ourselves a series of questions. In addition to the aforementioned ‘what kind of data do we have and use?’, we must determine what should be made public as well as to what degree. Underlying all of this is a more fundamental question is, of course: how does sharing this information improve the production of knowledge in design and the fields which it touches? Some of these queries have clear answers, but the majority require further discussion and reflection.

Data Sharing and Data Publishing

One common question I receive in various forms is why designers and design researchers should share their data more widely than they presently do. In many instances I find this returns to the aforementioned issue of diverse types of data. For some designers who have a clear definition of what their data is, why it is collected and how others can use the data, such as the DINED anthropometrics group, a conversation on what data to share and how can be fairly straightforward. But what are the actual benefits of sharing design notes or other types of context-bound qualitative data? In the data management community we have a set of commonly purveyed answers to this query, and I have been trying to see how they match up to existing practice in design.

The first is idealistic, that publishing data will further the field, improve science through increased transparency, accuracy and integrity. Reactions to this argument often take the form of a slow nod, a sign I take to be cautious optimism (one which I happen to share). This outcome is difficult to measure. I was once asked who would be interested in seeing the transcripts of x number of their interviews. A legitimate question, and one with an inscrutable answer – it is difficult to tell who will use your data if they do not know it exists in the first place. A corollary to this is that we ask people to weigh the requisite time investment in making materials publishable (sometimes substantial if working with qualitative and/or sensitive data) against this unpredictable benefit. I believe we need more evidence of the positive impact of making design data FAIR, whether this be figures of dataset citations (currently a desideratum) or anecdotal evidence of new contacts and collaborations resulting from data sharing. Essentially this means a few interested volunteers willing to learn the tools, put in some extra time and test the waters. Will sharing my sensor data attract the attention of a new commercial partner? Will my model be taken up and improved upon by the community using the product or service we design? These are certainly possibilities, but at present they remain a future less vivid.

For PhD students and early career researchers I frequently posit the possibility that publishing data, making their publications Open Access and other actions to make their work more transparent could yield direct career opportunities. This ties into efforts promoting expansion in the interpretation of research assessment such as DORA. In my current position, I feel that designers may be ahead of the curve when it comes to evaluating research impact. In addition to research papers published in journals boasting various impact factors, desirable results from design projects include engagement tools, reflections from projects, and prototypes to name only a few. The weighting of these outputs is unclear to me when it comes to, e.g. obtaining a research position, but I suspect there is room here for alloting credit to demonstrations of open working. This is certainly the case in some fields where lectureship advertisements include explicit language supporting Open Science. As far as I have been able to determine (in my extremely casual browsing of job postings) this is not yet an element of the narrative designers weave to present their work to potential employers nor one sought by employers themselves. However, data publications as part of CVs attached to grant applications may indeed have some cache, as funding agencies such as the NWO and ZonMw presently stress the importance of such activities in the pursuit of maximizing investment returns in the grants they award. Here is an opportunity to serve the interests of many.

Food for Thought

One of my takeaway messages from these debates is that there is a need for a community – in design, in many research areas – an opportunity to convene and discuss issues and test some of the options being afforded or demanded under the umbrella of Open Science. Some design research shares a number of data issues in common with social sciences – questions of consent, of data collection and access – while others are more aligned with mathematics or medicine. Furthermore I’d be interested to hear whether any RDA outputs have an application in design, as well as whether repositories for design materials would be desirable and how they should be arranged. From my admittedly biased position, I believe there is much that designers stand to gain from picking up versioning tools or sharing data more widely, and I think designers’ methods and the iterative nature of design thinking, as I understand them, could in turn only benefit Open Science communities.