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Stefana Maja Broadbent

The join challenges of social sciences and desing

01 October 2020 — 4 minutes read

My name is Stefana Broadbent, I have recently joined the Department of Design as an Associate Professor. I am a social scientist. I have a PhD in Cognitive Science from Edinburgh University but have done all my professional and academic career as a Digital Anthropologist. In fact before joining Politecnico I lectured in digital Anthropology at UCL in London.

When an anthropologist or social scientist like me works with designers what does she do?

So first of all I think that as a discipline we have been very successful at convincing designers and engineers that a successful product or service needed to be driven by user needs and user understanding. Ethnography, users research, cognitive analysis were shown to be a precondition for successful adoption and usage and are now an essential ingredient of the design process.

«Collaboration between social sciences and design is truly rooted in the user-centered approach. However, this was not always the case.»

Among the first projects I did in the 90s was work in highly complex environments in aviation, nuclear power plants and air traffic control. As an ethnographer I used to go into these complex environments to try and understand how operators worked, reasoned and took decisions. We would spend months studying how the systems worked and then days and nights in the control rooms with the operators doing our observations and trying to grasp how operators and controllers were using information, what were the significant parameters they used to solve problems and carry out their tasks. We would then work closely with the engineers and designers that were redesigning the interfaces or automated systems of the plants or control systems and try to convey to them how operators would use the information provided and how we could try and minimise potential errors and on the contrary maximise operators’ skills and competencies.

Our work as social scientists was an integral part of the design process because everyone involved realised that the human factor was crucial for safety of the operations.

With internet and then the mass adoption of mobile phones, the issues were radically different and had to do with designing digital services and interfaces that were accessible, inclusive, enjoyable, empowering and could improve on their pre digital counterpart.

Here my work was to understand some really fundamental human and social practices: how people communicate, how they organised their memories, they travelled or organised their knowledge. We would therefore spend time in people’s homes, ask them to keep diaries, discuss daily life and friendship and relationships.

For me as a social scientist studying these daily practices was fascinating in itself and it provided a fantastic framework to help designers construct tools and systems that made sense to people and addressed needs and cultural constraints. The collaboration between disciplines I believe proved incredibly successful maybe too successful if we think how addictive we have made these digital tools..

From 2000 onwards user research, UX, ethnography really did become an integral part of the design process and of the digital development processes. UX designers are a staple figure as are some methods to integrate users in the design process as users or participants. Co-design was also imported from Scandinavia as a method and is increasingly widespread as an approach to service design.

Currently we are in a very different phase, with very different challenges. One that is driven by uncertainty. Climate uncertainty, economic uncertainty and social uncertainty. It is very very difficult to anticipate how things will transform and therefore it is even more important to think closely about how people will interact, how societies will evolve. I believe social scientists can contribute by providing not a set of predictions but some clues on how social groups work and societies collaborate. Increasingly we are thinking of collective intelligence and how to better mobilise the enormous range of capabilities and knowledge that people have all over the world, to help solve the massive wicked problems we are facing, be it about climate change, democracy or inequality. We have the digital infrastructure, we have billions of people online every day, we have brilliant classic examples like Wikipedia that show that people can collaborate remotely to create something truly useful, selfless and outstanding, so the question is what can we design next to bring people together to solve big problems.

I am very fortunate because here in the Design Department I have been lecturing and working mostly with students from PSSD who have to design whole services. This is a discipline which embraces complexity and the big picture. When you design a service that aims at bringing neighbourhoods together to reduce food waste or create energy, you have to analyse the systems of distribution, the systems of production, people’s beliefs about what is good and healthy etc. You find inevitably that design and social sciences are enmeshed because to design effectively you have to understand the connections and ramifications in which human action is embedded and you can no longer think about how to make something that changes one behaviour at a time.

My object is paper, not only because it helped me remember my talk, but because it is the perfect example of distributed cognition. We hold very little in our heads we tend to put knowledge out in the world, in artefacts, rules and regulations, buildings and technology. Artefacts really carry knowledge that is cultura, historical and collective and they avoid us having to reinvent everything again every time we need to carry out a task.