I am in the process of conceptualizing a research study on systems design and change, using the case of our efforts to promote technology infusion in teacher education at NMSU. My co-investigators and I are planning an initial session with diverse stakeholders in teacher education, similar to a design charrette. As of now, the goals of this session is to:

  • find out what is already happening with technology in the NMSU teacher education program
  • better understand the beliefs NMSU teacher educators have about technology and learning
  • begin to envision what technology in the curriculum could be
  • build community and, hopefully, buy-in
  • identify individuals who are interested in being part of a core team focused on the curriculum design

As I have been attempting to explain my vision for this session, I have come up against a need to clarify what it means to me to “gather information” or “engage stakeholders.” A recent conversation with Punya Mishra highlighted the core of this issue: there is a certain type of listening that designers do, what I am calling design listening.

I identified two important characteristics about what I’m calling design listening:

Design listening is as much about doing and creating as it is about listening.

In design, acting and understanding (or learning) happen in tandem resulting in dialogic interactions. Donald Schön called this having a “conversation with the situation.” When we have a conversation with another person, we do so without knowing what our conversational partner will say. We take turns making statements or asking questions, building on what was said before. We develop meaning through our talk, each partner contributing to this meaning.

In a conversation with the situation, the situation becomes the conversational partner. Designers “say” something by making a move, listen to the response from the situation, and uses that response to inform what they do next. This is at the heart of sketching, where designers put an idea out there and then reflect on that idea to refine it. But, at heart, it is about coming to understand through doing.

The unique and uncertain situation comes to be understood through the attempt to change it, and changed through the attempt to understand it.

Schön, 1992, p. 132

Design listening calls for designers to do something (make a move) that will provide some feedback to inform the next term. In a design charrette (from a participatory design perspective), participants engage in this cycle. They have conversations with the situation, putting forward thoughts, considering the implications or reactions, and refining those thoughts.

The process itself provides not only useful information, but new ideas that resonate and make sense to participants.

Design listening embraces indeterminacy.

Because design is a conversation, it operates in indeterminacy: there are many possibilities for each conversational turn and the designer chooses their side of the conversation. Buchanan described indeterminate problems as problems that have no “definitive conditions or limits.” There are many different ways to address an indeterminate problem, and a designer chooses what direction to go in. This choice then re-defines the problem, providing opportunities for continued interaction.

The problem for designers is to conceive and plan what does not yet exist, and this occurs in the context of the indeterminacy of wicked problems, before the final result is known.

-Buchanan (1992, p. 18)

Extending this idea to design listening, in many cases neither side of the conversation has an absolute, “correct,” response. Rather, the conversation becomes a joint meaning-making activity, where participants develop an understanding together. This means that tools like surveys or closed-questioned interviews do not support design listening because they are focused on getting “the accurate” answers from respondents. In design listening, understanding is jointly constructed and requires interaction.

Look through any book on design thinking and you’ll see many tools for what I’m calling “design listening”–for example, common approaches such as “how might we” questions, gallery walks, what IDEO calls creative collaborations all have the potential to promote design listening. In order to do so, though, they must:

  • Engage a discussion that includes multiple perspectives (usually this means multiple people)
  • Be indeterminate (unpredictable)
  • Support participants in collaborative sense-making

The power of design listening is not just that it helps us design something for a “user,” it is in that the design is developed with the user. This increases the relevance of the design as well as buy-in and potential for true impact.


Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21.

Schön, D. A. (1992). The theory of inquiry: Dewey’s legacy to education. Curriculum Inquiry, 22(2), 119–139. https://doi.org/10.2307/1180029

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