In the wake of our discussion on Representation and Speculation approaches in HCI, I thought I would write a short post to pose a question. Granted that these categories aren’t exclusive, where do techniques such as personas and scenarios lie on this continuum? Personas are a common technique used in user-centered design and indeed do “speculate” on how certain groups or members of particular demographics go about their daily lives (or work contexts). Ultimately, the aim of personas is to help designers empathize with their target group and create a design that appropriately fits in their lives. While personas have a speculative quality, they are staunchly grounded in representation. User research (or sometimes just market research) techniques are used to synthesize accounts of human experience into one (or a small set) of primary and secondary “users” that objectively represent wide–and oftentimes diverse–populations of people. That’s not to say this approach is bad, rather this example simply illustrates it’s rationalist underpinnings.
So where do scenarios lie? The puzzle becomes more complicated for me. Similar to personas, scenario task descriptions emerged early in the development of user-centered design. Essentially, a scenario describes human activities or tasks in a story that creates a space for exploration of contexts, needs, and requirements. Scenarios are intended to capture personalized user perspectives relating to their activities, potentially leading to the development of new requirements.
During task scenario sessions, users reflect on hypothetical circumstances to generate the best assumption of how they might react in the given situation. These reflective descriptions are then synthesized into objectively reproducible design constraints. In contrast, approaches such as experience prototyping directly engage users in simulations, stimulating the physical and sensorial (as well as intellectual) nature of interacting with an artifact, system, or environment. Via simulation, experience prototyping engages participants directly in their own meaning making processes and designers aim to interpret these rich understandings (based on their own designerly ways of knowing) and incorporate them within specific design situations. It’s debatable exactly where experience prototyping lies on the continuum (I vote mostly speculation), however, in light of this example, scenarios fall strongly within representation. …but do they always?
Along with the growing movement toward human-centered design, new techniques and perspectives are being proposed to take into account the broader effects and unintended consequences design may produce on the world’s environments and inhabitants. Specifically, value-scenarios have been proposed as a method to support critical, systemic thinking throughout the design process about the ramifications of introducing new technological designs into the world. In this case, value-scenarios represent a speculative extension of an approach rooted in representation (i.e. scenario-based design). I think this example is interesting in that it illustrates the boundaries between categories we construct can be quite fluid and mutually inform each other. That’s not to say these categories aren’t good or useful, but rather critical examination of particular practices could lead to future productive synergies.