What is it?

While designers typically embrace contextual research to inform design, most design is accomplished at a design studio or office. Bodystorming uproots the process by placing creative design activities in an environment like the one that the design will change. The method places primary importance on context, making it easier for designers to gain understanding and empathy with users. When in context, designers can observe behavior; what's more, they can participate in situations, act out roles, and transform themselves into members of the community being served. Bodystorming offers designers three primary benefits:

  • It creates an equitable relationship between the designers and design research participants, driving "design with"-style solutions. Users become members of the design team; they can critique design ideas, and they are privy to design decisions that will ultimately influence their work and life.
  • It allows designers to witness actual behavior, rather than summary or staged behavior. By embedding the creative process in the context of work or play, designers are literally surrounded by actual events, behaviors, triggers, and problems, so they can better understand workflow inefficiencies, workarounds, and other areas for improvement.
  • It raises awareness of subtle influences on a given circumstance. Participants may leverage tacit knowledge in their day-to-day activities but may be unaware of their own capabilities. Or, as is common, power relationships, such as that of a boss/subordinate, may influence a situation. Bodystorming reveals these nuances, so designers can better understand how they support or hinder work.

How do I do it?

Bodystorming is deceptively simple: Uproot your design team and drop them in the context of work. More specifically:

  1. Identify the location of the context of work and consider the larger ecosystem of a given interaction. For example, if you are designing a transportation system for homeless people, you might identify several potential sites, such as a bus station, a bus, a homeless shelter, and a government office. Consider the accessibility of a given population and examine the site through two lenses:
    • physical accessibility: You probably won't be able to conduct design research activities in a mission-critical environment, such as an operating room or a trauma center, so you may need to identify the next best location (the waiting room, for example).
    • social accessibility: Your presence also may not be appropriate in other settings, such as those that need intimate privacy like a case worker engaging with a victim of domestic abuse. In these cases, too, move the bodystorming team to the next best location.
  2. Form a relationship with the stakeholders of each site articulating what you are doing and why you are doing it. Consider the relationship through these two lenses:
    • cognitive accessibility: Some participant groups will require the facilitator to have years of experience and deep empathy to relate to users. For example, if you are working in the context of drug addiction, it's cognitively inaccessible if your team struggles to understand how the addicted mind makes decisions. In such a case, you would need to add a drug-addiction expert to your design team.
    • ethical accessibility: Especially when you work with vulnerable populations, such as children or homeless people, examine the ethical implications of your work before you engage in bodystorming. You'll need to learn how to avoid even unintentional coercion. Oulasvirta, Antti, Esko Kurvinen, and Tomi Kankainen. "Understanding Contexts by Being There: Case Studies in bodystorming." Pers Ubiquit Comput, 2002: 125-134.
    • Establish your design studio at the bodystorming location. Bring all of the things you normally use to do your work. At every opportunity, engage users and stakeholders in the work you're doing, in order to validate your ideas and receive a non-designer viewpoint.

When should I use it?

Use bodystorming to understand situations that are outside of your comfort zone and set of experiences. Keep your design studio in the unique context for the duration of the project.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

It includes the output of the other design methods: scenarios, diagrams, sketches, and other artifacts. But with this method, you'll generate these items with a deeper understanding and respect for the culture in which your design will ultimately be used.

Where can I learn more?

"Understanding Contexts by Being There: Case Studies in Bodystorming" by Antti Oulasvirta, Esko Kurvinen, Tomi Kankainen.

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Service Blueprints

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving