Structuralist Design Methodology

While thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the phenomenological, hermeneutic, and structuralists approaches (which I never got too far with), I was thinking about “What would be an example of structuralist design methodology?”

Today I found this pretty cool article (link via putting people first) that mapped the different use-centered design research approaches. Not surprisingly, the mostly seemed to be grounded in a phenomenological/hermeneutic tradition.

None of them appeared to be grounded in structuralist philosophy. However, several of the methodologies do seem to emphasize artifacts and meaning rather the people and their intentions (which were all ones I don’t know very much about).


“Probes are ambiguous stimuli that designers send to people who then respond to them, providing insights for the design process. No attempt is made to understand or to empathize with the people probed; the objective is design inspiration.”

lead-user innovation

“In 1986 Eric von Hippel introduced the lead user method that can be used to systematically learn about user innovation in order to apply it in new product development. ”

generative tools

“The landscape of generative tools is revealing a new language whose components
are both visual and verbal. These components can be combined in an infinite
variety of meaningful ways, much like the linguistic elements we use in speaking
and comprehending (Chomsky, 1965). The new language is, however,
predominantly visual, as opposed to verbal. We put a large number of components together into toolkits. People select from the components in order to create artifacts that express their thoughts, feelings and/or ideas. The resulting artifacts may be in the form of collages, maps, stories, plans, and/or memories. The stuff that dreams are made of is often difficult to express in words but may be imaginable as pictures in your head.

These collages and transcripts of the presentations are analyzed using
elementary statistical methods, such as counting the co-occurrence of images and
words. More sophisticated analysis, such as using multidimensional scaling to
reveal the patterns in chosen images and words, can also be performed.”

The above design research methodologies do seem to emphasize artifacts and meaning (and in the case of generative tools, languages) rather than people and intentions, but they don’t seem altogether structuralist to me. In fact, they actually seem to mix hermeneutic/phenomenological analysis with structuralist analysis. For example, generative tools is aimed at getting people to express their dreams, yet it suggests using simple statistical methods to uncover patterns, which to me sounds very structuralist. Lead-user innovation seems to be concerned with paradigmatic and syntagmatic differences in products, however, I would guess that in the end they would often relate these back to the goals and intentions of the lead-users who designed them. In the description above, the returned probe packets seem to be interpreted without regard for the intentions or goals of their creators, however I could see how they might be interpreted in multiple ways, including from a hermeneutic approach.

Rather than ask “What would be an example of structuralist design methodology?” the real question is “Why would you want a structuralist design methodology?” One of the most compelling reasons I’ve seen so far, is that structuralist analysis can be applied to any artifact, even in the absence of the person who created it or the people who are interpreting it. This type of analysis also seems to lend itself more to generalization since a language is shared by a community and seems to exist in some objective sense (at least, more so than the subjective intentions of individuals).


  1. davidroyer

    James, nice post.

    You ask: “Why would you want a structuralist design methodology?”

    I have been playing with this question as well. I think your reasons are valid. I also think studying the artifact itself is useful because according to structuralists, and others, languages and objects shape how people think/act.

    If this is the case, analyzing the objects themselves is very important. I think Jeff’s colloquium is a good example of this. He encourages Adobe to examine the products they put out because messages created with these products ultimately affect mainstream society. The messages people make are effected by the tool itself (very structuralist (or maybe postphenomenological – or maybe thats more about mediations) concept).

  2. jimmypierce

    Excellent point, Dave. I agree this was one of the big takeaways from Jeff’s talks, that the structure and capabilities of the artifact constrain/allow creativity, particularly wrt the usable features. I’m embarrassed I missed this one!

    In retrospect, I seem to have been biased towards the phenomenological perspective since my justifications for adopting a structuralist methodology both seem to be aimed at addressing specific weaknesses of a phenomenological approach, rather than acknowledging the value of an entirely new way of understanding, e.g. that artifacts shape behavior.


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