This is the tenth post in a series considering the role of psychological research within the context of an architectural practice. The goal of this series is to provide answers to six key questions, namely, the why, what, who, when, how and where, of design focused psychological research.
In my previous post, the “how” of design focused psycho-social research was discussed by referring to factors that influence the decision to use specific research methodologies. Against this background a number of research tools will be described. This post will focus on traditional research tools and how these can be applied in architectural practice. A future post will discuss emerging tools, i.e. tools that have only become available to designers and researchers in recent years.
Design focused psycho-social research requires the collection of information regarding either the individual, the environment or, in most cases, both. Certain tools are better suited to describe the experiences of an individual using a space while others will be more suitable when assessing a space. While this seems obvious, a clear understanding regarding the relative strengths and weaknesses of a specific tool to describe either the individual or an environment is one of the most important questions when developing a study.
As discussed in the previous post, there are a number of factors to consider when deciding on a methodology and appropriate tool, and it is important to keep in mind that although one particular instrument might be easier and less expensive to use, ease of use and cost are only two factors to consider when developing a methodology.
Traditional research tools, relevant to design focused psycho-social research can roughly be considered to belong in one of four groups. These are:
Interviews, Surveys, Observation, Photography (including video)
Interviews can be defined as the event that takes place when two or more people meet for the purpose of inquiring about predefined subject matter through a series of questions. Interviews can either be in person, or over a telephone (or video call).
Interviews can be structured, that is, informed by a pre-determined set of questions, or open ended in nature. A popular form of interview is that of a focus group where a number of individuals meet with a researcher to collectively answer questions. The processing of results obtained by interviews can range from using responses as is, to complex narrative or thematic analysis.
The interview is one of the most accessible tools available to researchers and requires little more than willing participants. Benefits associated with this method are the ease with which it can be applied and that results can be gained without significant data processing. Apart from the time required by the researchers, interviews are relatively inexpensive to perform.
One drawback to this method is that it requires the direct involvement of a researcher and can be time intensive when a large number of interviews are required. A second drawback is that participants are providing their answers directly to another person, and in most cases this cannot be done anonymously. This means that their responses might be moderated and on especially controversial topics their feedback may be less candid.
Within the field of architecture interviews are often used as part of programming as well as during post-occupancy evaluations. Non-traditional uses of interviews include using the online tools to perform interviews via a chat interface accessed through anonymous links or having respondents interview each other by using a simple questionnaire as an outline. Psycho-social research interviews are used to collect information regarding either the users’ experience or thoughts associated with behavior in a space, or about the qualities of a specific design
Surveys are structured instruments used to collect information. Surveys can take the form of either physical or digital questionnaires.
In psychological and social research a number of standardized instruments are available, and constantly being updated. Surveys can be used for research varying from; opinion polls (simple) to assessments regarding personality or other psychological constructs such as time perspective or anxiety (complex).
A benefit of surveys are that they are relatively easy to administer and can digitally be administered to a large number of respondents online. Digital surveys do not require the presence of a researcher and therefore allows for a wide application within a limited time frame.
A drawback of surveys is that they are usually associated with a limited response rate which requires researchers to expand the pool of subjects sufficiently to obtain a representative sample. Given the absence of the researcher when surveys are completed, it is crucial that surveys be worded and structured correctly since unclear questions or biased phrasing can have a significant effect on the results. Results from surveys are typically obtained through some form of data analysis and can include textual or narrative analysis. Formal measuring instruments are usually scored by referring to standardized guidelines defined during the development of the instrument.
While surveys are valuable tools when considering post-occupancy evaluations, one innovative use of surveys is the combination of formal instruments, such as those assessing personality, anxiety or similar psychological constructs, with design focused measures. Additional uses include the use of surveys as part of preliminary or pilot studies in order to reveal themes for future research.
The direct observation of users in a study environment has been an important method of research in a wide range of sciences including psychology and anthropology. While this method is widely used with standardized and controlled environments for experimental research, design focused observation typically occur in ‘real world’ environments. Benefits of this method are that it is flexible enough to apply within a wide range of environments and that, with limited experience, researchers can obtain relevant results within a short period of time.
A drawback associated with this method is that researchers are present within the environment they are studying, a factor that might affect the results. Additionally, given the wide number of variables within ‘real world’ environments, researchers may initially struggle to identify the most relevant variable to identify and study to obtain meaningful results within a given environment. Even with well defined variables, measuring these in real time may pose a challenge which may require the development of new methodologies.
Typical variables that can be studied through observation relate to the use of spaces over time, characteristics of users, level and nature of interaction and the manipulation of design environments by users.
Photography & Video
A method closely related to observation is the use of photography (and video recording) to observe usage patterns and behavior.
Benefits of this method is that researchers do not need to be present to observe the behavior and that large amounts of data of various locations can be collected in a relatively short amount of time allowing for comparative studies.
Apart from the obvious privacy and legal considerations associated with this type of research other drawbacks include that data processing and coding of the data tend to be time intensive and may require specialized equipment or knowledge. However, processing of data can be facilitated with media applications utilizing tracking and coding to identified behavioral patterns.
Considering that contemporary design focused research centers on topics which traditionally fell outside the scope of the established research disciplines, researchers and designers may find that the most appropriate study methodology may require a number of tools from more than one of these categories in order to adequately define and assess the variables.
In the next post I will discuss emerging tools relevant to design focused psycho-social research. I will explore the technologies associated with sensing, tracking and simulation.
An Introduction to Psychological Research in Architectural Practice
Why does psychological research in architectural practice matter?
Considering psychosocial research as a part of architectural practice
5 Points on the Nature of Psychosocial Research in Architecture
WHO: What to ask when assembling a psychosocial research team
WHO: Psychological research in architecture, Part 2
WHO: Psychological research in architecture, Part 3
The WHEN of psychological research in architecture
HOW to do psychological research in architectural practice