Testing Conundrums

At the 2014 Living Future conference, Judith Heerwagen extensively reviewed how to determine the effect that a design solution has had on users.  The quote with which she lead off her session, “every design is a hypothesis waiting to be tested,” indicates the practical nature of the information discussed. 

Using as a case study an investigation of the influence of a workplace’s design on circadian rhythms, Heerwagen highlighted the difficult decisions designers face as they weigh the clarity of the conclusions they can draw from data they can obtain via particular test methodologies against the costs of testing.  So, in the circadian rhythm example, levels of cortisol can be assessed in human beings before and after a change in made in the environment to determine how that modification has influenced circadian systems.  When cortisol is tested, researchers can be relatively certain of the implications of a design decision, but measuring cortisol levels is extremely expensive.  At the other end of the spectrum, voluntary feedback from users, voting on options by users, and occupancy monitoring are much less expensive ways to gather information about the effect of that modification, but the insights developed from the data collected can be presented with less certainty. 

The full range of research tools mentioned by Heerwagen in her discussion of the circadian rhythm example, in order from highest certainty and cost to lowest were: assessing cortisol levels, measuring blood pressure, brainwave/heart monitoring, testing circadian state, cognitive testing, user perception surveys, video monitoring, voluntary feedback, voting on options by users, and occupancy monitoring. 

Not all of the tools mentioned in the last paragraph are relevant in any situation, but Heerwagen’s fundamental point, that deciding how to test the influence of a design on its users requires weighing the research budget against the certainty with which conclusions can be drawn from data collected, is always important for designers to consider.

Judith Heerwagen.  2014.  “Launch and Iterate:  Using A Rapid Testing Approach to Implement and Refine Biophilic Design Strategies.”  Living Future 2014:  Beauty and Inspiration, May 21-May 23, 2014, Portland, OR.