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Best Paper 2021: Q&A with Authors Xiao Ge and Larry Leifer

Best Paper 2021: Q&A with Authors Xiao Ge and Larry Leifer

The Design Studies Journal has announced the winning article for Best Paper 2021, ‘Situated emotion and its constructive role in collaborative design: A mixed-method study of experienced designers’ by Xiao Ge, Larry Leifer and Linlin Shui. We got in touch with the authors to ask them a few questions about their paper and the future of design research. 


Can you tell us a bit more about the context of the article? Why do you think it’s timely to design practice now?

XIAO:  Emotion is often viewed as unformalized factors that are separate from the intellectual process of technological work. Engineering education emphasizes “think”, not “feel”. Engineers do not talk about emotions. This bias is also perpetuated in design research. For decades, research on design (especially engineering design) and its process has focused on deriving the rational and analytical basis. We see very limited work on emotion. This article is our attempt to challenge the stereotypical views about emotion in design practice and research, especially in engineering disciplines. We started to address the dearth of attention to emotions and feelings by studying good, experienced designers and providing empirical evidence for how emotion constitutes critical moments of creativity, learning and collaboration.

We started investigating designer emotion at Stanford Center for Design Research more than ten years ago (e.g., Larry Leifer’s PhD advisee Malte Jung at the time also researched designer emotion). To date, emotion research in design science is still a marginal field. Studies in the field often do not show adequate knowledge about the emotion theories that they have either explicitly or implicitly adopted. This article comes at a time when we still desperately need more rigorous research to provide empirical evidence to show that emotion matters, that emotion is intertwined with cognition, creativity, learning and performance in design. On the other hand, now is a perhaps a good time to trigger scholarly interest in emotion, as recent years have seen a burst of work developing computational tools and machine learning methods that are conducive to emotion research.

LARRY:  engineering education emphases science and denigrates emotions. Xiao and I are deeply engaged with project based education at global scale (ME310ABC, 3 quarters).  I believe that Xiao was sensitized to emotion factors across nationalities ( Growing up in different cultures begets different emotions, especially during teamwork). 


What is ‘emotion research’? How do emotions relate to design practice and design research?

XIAO:  Emotion is a familiar everyday label that is otherwise elusive to research as a neural, psychological, social and cultural phenomenon. We think an important job research does for the society is that it makes “familiar” problems “unfamiliar” (ref: Serge Moscovici). In the context of emotion research, for instance, we are all familiar with folk emotion concepts of anger, excitement and so on and know that if we feel certain emotions, we express them (especially in the Western contexts). Preschool classrooms teach children these ideas using the emotion charts. Pixar movie Inside Out is one of the many cultural products that reinforce the idea that emotions are distinct things inside us seeking expression in the face and body. We commonly believe so. Even the airport security staff are trained to detect deception and assess risk based on people’s facial and bodily behaviors (see more in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions Are Made). However, recent 20 years of progress in emotion research shows little support to such an essentialist view that people “express” their emotions in universal consistent ways. Instead, research suggests that humans “construct” emotions based on their bodily and situational signals. Emotion research in design is endeavors to make what is familiar in design research and design research unfamiliar. For instance, the current article challenges the familiar idea that emotions are noisy byproducts of designers’ design process. We need more research to allow us to unlearn old ideas about emotion in design, form new perspectives, and develop deeper understandings about design practice. 


Why did you choose a mixed-method study? What did this add to your analysis?

XIAO:  The mixed-method approach was chosen based on our theoretical perspective. To study emotion that is relevant and revealing of designers' experiences and processes in their respective ecologically valid settings, we have adopted the “constructed” / "situated" theoretical view of emotion. From this view, emotions are not just in the head, on the body, but also out there; emotions are sociocultural constructions. This theoretical perspective inspired us to seek a multimodal, mixed-methods approach so that we could interrogate the various vectors of emotion—physiological, behavioral and social—in naturalistic settings.

LARRY:  Engineering has NO proven methodology for studying human behavior (the usual focus is on materials and math).  Hence, Xiao needed to search for methodology, give no precedence.


What does "design research" mean to you?

XIAO:  As part of the design research group led by Prof. Larry Leifer at Stanford University, we broadly investigate “what is it that designers do when designers do design”. Our work has contributed to the theorizing of various phenomena around design—team performance, workspace design, design process, interaction design, and design learning, to give a few examples, as well as the development of rigorous empirical approaches. 

LARRY:  Our core research question has always been, “WHY are they doing that?”


How has the DRS or Design Studies supported your work in design research?

XIAO:  Amongst others, Kees Dorst’s research on framing, and Robin Adams’ work on emotion and learning, inspired the formation of this research project back in 2016-17. In 2019, Xiao Ge (the first author) had a long conversation with Andy Dong on uncertainty management, emotional disturbance and learning, which greatly helped Xiao synthesize research ideas but also motivated her to persist. What also made a huge difference are the insightful comments from Editor-in-Chief Peter Lloyd and the reviewers, who have helped us get this article into a much better shape. A lot of support came from Stanford design research people—Neeraj Sonalkar, Ade Mabogunje, Malte Jung, Nik Martelaro, David Sirkin, Becky Currano, Wendy Ju, George Toye, Sheri Sheppard and others—many of whom are part of or are extended members of DRS. We deeply appreciate all the support from DRS and Design Studies communities. 

LARRY:  “Why” always takes us to methodology across teams and cultures. The names Xiao has given you come from people from India, Nigeria, Germany, USA, China (pre and post- communism), men and women.