What’s in the bag?

by New Idiom

Imagine sticking your hand in a black bag and feeling something hard, possibly cool and smooth. One side is flat with hard edges while the other side is flat with rounded edges. You run your fingers over the flat side with hard edges and you feel a circular shape with a raised circle in the middle. What is in the bag? Do you like the feel of it or do you hate the feel of it? What is your visceral reaction to the material, texture and weight? What characteristics are most recognizable to you? Sounds like one of those games you may have played as a child, minus the sticky, gooey factor, right?

Well, it was fun. I stuck my hand in twelve different bags when I attended Matt Zabel’s workshop at the Design Research Conference. Along with seventeen other people, I spent two hours discussing human factors and the visceral experience of interacting with a product. I got firsthand experience with that interaction when my hand was in a black bag. Tactility of a product is so important. Not seeing the object, just feeling it makes you realize that. When done well, a tactile product “just feels right”. Your fingertips (and lips) are the most sensitive to touch. How a product feels in your hand or how it feels when using it often dictates its popularity in a market. Matt stressed how the design of a product is all about the fit. Making the connections between physical, cognitive, emotional, economic and ecological factors are what make a product a “good fit”.


During a roundtable lunch discussion on Saturday, Matt led a group of us in a discussion about the “emerging discipline” we are in and what it means. Describing what we do to others is often frustrating. I’m sure you’ve all felt that. Design research has only recently been somewhat “defined” as a profession. Stemming from diverse educational and professional backgrounds, design researchers or those practicing design research methods in any capacity have the difficult task of trying to define what it is they do. Simply saying you empathize with people does not cut it. That you help form innovative products and services that best serve a population may sound a little better. But how is “success” measured in design research? Who are we serving? Where is the profession heading in the future? These are all questions we discussed over lunch. Our answers led to more questions, that inevitably we will attempt to answer throughout our entire careers.

Matt Zabel is the human factors and design research manager at Brooks Stevens in St. Paul, Minnesota. His background is in social science and industrial design. Matt is an “advocate for the end user” and when asked what he does…research or design, he says, “I still consider myself a designer”.

photo by Miguel Cervantes