Action Research (AR) is a research methodology, Design Thinking (DT) is not — it’s a mindset and methodology for innovation that employs various research methods. That said, there are folks that have noticed the link between AR and DT. For example, Trullen and Bartunek (2007) write that both approaches follow the same steps, Mojtahedi (2017) argues that DT is AR plus principles of design process, and Tonkinwise (2010) basically says that DT is a form of AR: “Design Thinking is foremostly defined as the sort of Action Research that comes from fail-friendly, iterative prototyping in context of immersive social research”.
AR is at least 20 years older than the earliest efforts that kickstarted DT during 1960s. Yet, strangely, if you search the web for the history or origins of DT, you probably won’t see connections with AR or its subset Participatory Action Research (PAR). To me there are many valuable lessons in the world of AR that would be useful for DT though. In this article, I’m listing three:
1. Knowing to Change vs Changing to Know
The dude who coined Action Research, Kurt Lewin, once said you can’t understand a system until you try to change it. During the Empathy phase, DTers use principles of ethnography to step into the user’s world and excavate the data gems that are later shaped into insights. For AR, however, insights about the user’s world are built as she actively participates in changing it. In other words, while DT is focused on knowing [things] to change [a situation], AR’s motto is changing [a situation] to know [things]. DT can use AR’s approach to knowing as a complement to its conventional methods of Empathy. This could blur the boundaries between Empathy, Define, and Ideate — which will only make things more exciting!
2. Scaling Insight Generation
In most schools of social sciences, people are considered research subjects. DT also treats users as subjects during the earlier phases of the process especially during Empathy where the design team conducts interview and observation. In AR though, researchers don’t conduct research on others, they do research on themselves! Why? Because researchers in AR are in fact users who are elevated to the level of research partner and are equipped with the right tools to systematically investigate their own emotions and behaviors, to develop co-ownership of knowledge, and to eventually change a situation for the better. DT can also scale its insight generation capacity by educating users to become researchers.
3. Relationship-Centered Design
Design Anthropologist and my brilliant friend, Ada Mestad, suggests a paradigm shift from Human-Centered Design to Relationship-Centered Design. While Design Thinking’s focus is on creating new things, Action Research’s success pivots around transforming relationships. This difference is also reflected in earlier phases of DT and with methods like one-to-one interviews, building personas, and journey mapping that consider the user as the unit of analysis. Because AR is driven by communities and for communities, the unit of analysis shifts from user or person to relationships among people. This means a community needs to leverage its existing relationships to explore, map, and eventually improve them. Adopting the relationship-centered mindset, DT can integrate methods like Social Network Analysis and theoretical perspectives such as Community of Practice to get to more sophisticated insights.