Design knowledge: The building blocks of impact

Good design starts with understanding people’s needs, motivations, and behaviours—necessary knowledge for making decisions about who, what, how, and where to design. This knowledge is organized into several categories, including:

  • Stories: Rich anecdotes about the lives of users, helping to portray the people most affected by the thing you’re designing

  • Ideas: Suggestions made by research participants that can often inform early-stage concepts, or prototypes

  • Needs: The specific wants, desires, and unmet needs of end users that must be addressed through the design of services, products, and experiences

  • Scenarios: Detailed descriptions of situations or encounters in which design interventions may be used

  • Insights: New, novel, and actionable information that guides designers 

Picking and choosing information from any one of these categories of knowledge can help build up a comprehensive picture of whom to design for, in what context, and how. The process used to generate all this design knowledge is called “synthesis.” Design practitioner, researcher, and educator Jon Kolko argues, “synthesis requires a designer to forge connections between seemingly unrelated issues through a process of selective pruning and visual organization.” The results of all this “pruning” and “visual organizing” are maps, personas, frameworks that lay the groundwork for design that will have an impact.

Creating design knowledge in practice

With less than a week to go until the final research presentation, the Designership team is sifting through hundreds of data points collected from 22 interviews to craft the strategic research artifacts that answer the who, what, where, and how to design. 

We presented preliminary research findings at a research check-in—a chance to give our project partners an update on our research progress—with the Systems Planning Collective, an initiative led by A Way Home Canada, Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, and Turner Strategies. The Systems Planning Collective is dedicated to helping communities and governments to prevent and end all forms of homelessness in Canada by supporting evidence-based systems planning, capacity building, and technical assistance.

Preparing for the check-in

As the week began, we created a coding framework—a set of themes that emerged from the interviews. Themes included identity, home, pain points, toolbox, ideas, collaboration, good quotes, needs, successes, and life events. We went through each interview determining which codes applied to what interviewees said. We used a participatory process to code data, going through each set of interview notes together, line-by-line, to apply codes. 

Next, coded data were clustered into categories, such as “gatekeeping” and “rules and regulations.” The team looked for connections between categories to arrive at preliminary insights. For example, we discovered connections that led to the insight “miracle workers go the extra mile.”

Presenting our work to the Systems Planning Collective

In addition, to presenting preliminary research insights, we also showcased the artwork of youth who took part in interviews. These mini-vignettes depicted how youth defined “home” and included quotes from their interview and snippets from the journal they completed while making the art. In one example, a youth likened their home to their backpack, since a home is what you can carry if you don’t have a house or place to stay. 

At the research check-in, we placed the ideas, insights, data, youth needs, and artwork boards around the room for the members to see and presented our preliminary research findings to the group, placing emphasis on the impact of the youths’ artwork. The session ended with a generative activity in which participants identified key considerations when designing a school-based prevention program for youth at risk of becoming homeless.  

Some of the responses included that schools should consider how Indigenous youth feel and how to deliver equal support for every youth. Other participants highlighted the need for a personal touch with interventions. For example, when students miss school, they suggested, the administration should contact parents personally rather than making an automated phone call to them. 

The research check-in provided an overview of the process that our team went through to collect and interpret data collected from interviews. The check-in kept partners in the loop and helped us gather feedback on our research. 

On deck: Our team will be co-creating with youth and stakeholders! 


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