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Transforming Learning Through User-Centered Design Research Methods

Spruce, Jonathan and Evans, Martyn (2020) Transforming Learning Through User-Centered Design Research Methods. The American Journal of Art & Design, 5 (2). pp. 50-58. (In Press)

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Abstract

This paper considers how design educators can harness the evolving nature of design practice to enhance learning for design students. It sets out the reasoning for embedding user-centered design research methods in the curriculum, describes the potential of these methods to transform learning and, as a result, better prepare graduates for their future career. Project-based learning was employed to explore the potential impact of embedding user-centered design research methods in the curriculum. Two project-based case studies, conducted with undergraduate design and design and marketing students in separate UK universities, illustrate how user-centered design research methods have been applied across traditional discipline boundaries. We report on student experiences immediately, and longitudinally (12 months) after the completion of the projects. Thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews with students on completion of the projects revealed that a more holistic understanding of the design process was developed through the use of user-insights generated as a result of engagement with these methods. While this process had caused positive tensions and recognition of the need to move beyond the self and to put themselves in other people’s shoes, the insights generated informed subsequent design activity and provided a clearer link between research and design development. After 12 months, thematic analysis of follow-up interviews revealed changes in design practices through adoption of structured user-centered methods had led to an enhanced appreciation of contextual factors and underpinned and better justified design decisions. Detailed analysis of the findings informed the development of a Transforming Learning Framework which articulates how the adoption of user-centered design research methods shapes students longer-term understanding of, and approaches to, design. This framework conveys how new frames of reference and critical reflection led to an enhanced design skillset and mindset and as such provides new insights that have the potential to advance understandings of pedagogic practice. Finally, the research revealed that exposure to user-centered design research methods enhanced sensitivity to, and awareness of, user needs; increased understanding of context and the breadth of issues relevant in early stages of the design process; and amplified students confidence helping better prepare them for professional practice.

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