For this three month module titled ‘UX Design’ we’ll be creating a digital product from research & ideation through to testing and prototyping. We were tasked with defining a brief last week. I decided that I’d like to work on a live brief, so I turned to one of my communities of practice – Climate Designers – and reached out to a fellow designer who had posted about a project she’s been working on.
Wastevine is a pilot app conceptualised by architect Alex as part of her Masters at London Met University. She originally came up with the idea to aid responsible use of resources in design and fabrication for architecture students, with the view to extend to other creative disciplines (Fashion, Textiles, Interior Design, Sustainable Product Design). I approached her and proposed to re-design a 2.0 version of the app for this project. We agreed that I’ll develop the concept to include other creative disciplines and create an original prototype. I’ll be sharing my research with Alex whilst she has kindly shared her idea and current research with me.
Defining a hypothesis
The focus of Wastevine is to encourage the next generation of designers to create more environmentally responsible designs as they forge their creative practice at university. The aim is to provide access to affordable sustainable materials. According to recent research on design education, Fashion & Textile Design students consider sustainability very important but often struggle to implement sustainable practices due to lack of information and limited material choices (Hur and Cassidy 2019).
The current generation of students are surrounded by stories of climate disaster, and many are motivated to seek low-impact materials and design processes. According to LSN Global, 80% of Millenials and Gen Z believe that brands must be transparent about their environmental impacts in the production of their goods and services (Rogers & Cosgrove, 2021). Additionally, a third say that Covid-19 has had an extreme or very negative impact on their financial security (Leonhardt, 2021). Therefore students under financial pressure will benefit from access to low-cost materials to complete their design studies.
From initial research and conversations with Alex, I formed the following hypothesis:
Current art and design students want to create work with sustainable, recycled materials but they lack access to good quality, affordable sources. By connecting students with businesses and individuals who are selling recycled and sustainable materials, students will be more able to use more ecologically friendly materials in their work.
The next stage will be to research potential users to question the hypothesis, learn more about their attitudes and behaviors to create a validated problem statement.
The research focuses on University students, both BA and MA (from Fashion, Textiles, Costume, Interior Design, Product Design, Architecture) These students are UK or Europe based, between the ages of 19 – 30. I contacted the network of students at Falmouth University via my previous course leader on Fashion & Textiles.
My interview goal was to discover the following:
How do design students use, source and dispose of materials on their course, and how much does sustainable practice influence their behavior?
I conducted semi-structured one-to-one interviews, which are recommended for learning about people’s feelings and behaviors (Clarke and Braun 2013). The initial interviews affirmed the importance of testing assumptions. Several features that I considered important for the product started to fade into insignificance, whilst new and interesting ideas came to surface. In the first interview I caught myself asking leading questions towards the end, listening back I reminded myself to stick to the interview guide in the next sessions. The guide isn’t to be read word-for-word but it’s a reminder to ask open-ended questions and focus on the interview goal.
Testing our assumptions in our designs means accepting that there is no one and only ‘truth’. Everything is interpretable by countless meanings, dependent on perspective (Dam and Siang 2020). It’s an exercise in humility, a reminder that ideas should be driven by the user needs, not our own ideals.
Synthesising the research
I decided to use affinity mapping to organise my interview data. I enjoy this method due to the visual aspect, having those post-its in front of me with key quotes enabled me to draw connections fairly quickly. It’s an efficient method to go from analysis to synthesis, ideally completed in a team with physical post-its (Dam and Siang 2022). However I used the online tool Miro, their drag and drop interface feels almost like the real deal.
Synthesis is the process through which a researcher identifies patterns in the data and starts to create insights to define the problem statement. Grouping the quotes into ‘I statements’ meant that I could start spotting patterns of behavior and affinity within the participant data. This process took several rounds of organising and switching statements until they were grouped in a way which made sense, with enough quotes to validate each statement.
Students interviewed shared a similar definition of ‘sustainability’. Recycling and extending the lifecycle of a product stand out. Reducing harm and waste go hand in hand. This is also a key concern of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion who found that £140 million worth of clothing goes to landfill each year, whilst £380 billion is lost each year thanks to clothes underutilisation and lack of recycling. (Tickell and Williams).
Based on the interview insights, I redefined my problem statement into:
Design students need easy online access to reasonably priced sustainable materials because they want to minimise the environmental impact of their work.
In the end the problem statement is a simplified version of my hypothesis. I found that the initial idea created by Alex was already fairly validated by her research amongst architecture students. In my research with fashion and textiles students the consensus was that they didn’t know where to source materials but they had a desire to cultivate a more sustainable creative practice, and that they needed the solution to be cheap! The biggest new insights for me were on the complexity of the materials, the struggle with recycling leftover materials and the lack of incentive from their university courses. I see that the product will need to include a vast array of options [of materials] to be worthwhile for the students. Though the idea of cross-disciplinary material use could happen organically, the material choices need to focus on function and suitability for each course.
It emerged that there are two categories of material necessity at different stages of the student’s process:
- Experimental: The materials students use to develop their designs, usually rougher, cheaper and more disposable. ‘It doesn’t matter if there’s a little stain’. In this case recycled, slightly damaged industry materials can be an ecological and accessible choice.
- Final product: This is where students want ‘nicer’ ‘certified’ materials and more options of specifications. This is where established sustainably sources material manufacturers come into play.
I’ll continue exploring this as I go on to defining the user journey next week..
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