Investigative Design Methodology in Studying Spatial Equity **

(Please Note: This document will be updated with more detailed processes and guides to ensure our methods remain transparent as our process develops and research demands methodology adjustments). 

Mission Statement:

Our mission is to curate a holistic narrative of community-based stories, scientific findings, and social system insights that inspire design-based interventions for equality. We define space as both physical and invisible; focusing on the physical and natural environment, such as buildings, urbanscapes, and green spaces, as well as invisible structures, such as governance, policy, economics, social dynamics, and cultural norms. 

A Synopsis of our Approach:
Investigative Design consists of two key focus points: research and design. The first component focuses on collecting research and insights to gain a holistic image of the invisible and physical structures and systems that either promote or are detrimental to, equitable space participation. Our research will employ a ‘bottom-up’ approach and inform a series of general and accessible human and spatial metrics that can be adapted to different communities and spaces. We recognize that each site and space are unique for a variety of reasons, such as location, climate, history, socio-economic policies, etc., and therefore will require certain adjustments. We invite collaboration and recognize our approach is subjective, but we maintain that design is not fully subjective, hence the need to create a set of general spatial metrics. We encourage you to question and challenge us and add to our research and design process.  


Our Investigative Design method is born from design thinking, ethnography, and investigative journalism. To understand our process, we first will introduce you to each of the aforementioned approaches. 

  • The Paul Williams Investigative Journalist Method:
    To the journalist, it is essential to investigate a story from every angle to provide a well-rounded and unfiltered account of a given subject. The journalist starts with a question and explores all different angles and sides until the researcher arrives at their answer.

    According to UNESCO, the purpose of investigative journalism is to expose “to the public matters that are concealed–either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding.” 

To accomplish this, The Reporter’s Handbook by Steve Weinberg lists eleven steps of investigative journalism. They are as follows:

  1. Identify the problem you want to address.
  2. How feasible is answering the problem? What obstacles exist? 
  3. Make a decision to pursue or abandon the story.
  4. Basebuilding; research and build an understanding of how the given system or structure is supposed to work in order to identify flaws. 
  5. Plan how you will curate and organize information.
  6. Conduct original and in-depth research
  7. Reevaluate if the investigation should continue to move forward.
  8. Fill in the Gaps - use new research and interviews to answer any new or old questions.
  9. Final Evaluation - do you have everything you need to answer the problem?
  10. Write and rewrite to maximize clarity and accessibility.
  11. Publicize and follow up with additional, related stories.
  • Ethnography

Unlike the Journalist, the Ethnographer approach follows an open-ended methodology, rather than a central question. Most commonly, this approach is used by anthropologists. By immersing oneself into another’s culture and everyday life, the ethnographer is able to best empathize with and understand the subject.

“The aim of an ethnographic study within a usability project is to get ‘under the skin’ of a design problem (and all its associated issues). It is hoped that by achieving this, a designer will be able to truly understand the problem and therefore design a far better solution.” (Spotless). 

Empathizing with the user is a crucial step in this research, and ethnography is a secondary methodology within empathizing. While we may not always be able to conduct work in a manner consistent with an ethnographic methodology, we will approach all research with the mindset of understanding our user, ensuring that their experiences are true of the larger user audience, and avoiding any bias or preconceptions we may have. We will use an ethnographic approach to interviewing to collect deep, unfiltered data, and personal accounts.

Ethnography rests on the following principles when interviewing subjects:

  1. Don’t suggest answers to your questions. Even if an interviewee pauses before answering, don’t help them by suggesting or prompting an answer. This can unintentionally induce ‘confirmation bias’ and get people to say things that agree with your expectations. Ask questions neutrally.
  2. Don’t be afraid of silence. Often, if you allow there to be silence a person will reflect on what they’ve just said, and say something deeper.
  3. Look for inconsistencies. Sometimes what people say and what they do (or say later) are different. Gracefully probe these contradictions.
  4. Be aware of nonverbal cues: Consider body language and emotions.
  5. Stay on the same path of a question: Respond to what your interviewee offers and follow up to go deeper. Use simple queries to get him to say more:
    1. “Oh, why do you say that?”
    2.  “What were you feeling at that point?”
  • Design Thinking Process: 

Design thinking is a problem-solving strategy and means to see the world, which prioritizes empathy and a holistic understanding of a given problem, person, or community in order to create design solutions. For a more in-depth understanding, Stanford's d. school has created a good guide you can access here.

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

—Tim Brown (IDEO)

(Photo from UXbeginner.)

OUR Process: Investigative Design Method: 

Each approach offers valuable contributions to our methodology. In our process, we combine the impartial, well-rounded approach of the journalist, with the sincerity and empathy of an ethnographer, and the user-centric synthesizing, ideating, and creative process of a design thinker. Thus, we call for the combination of both methodologies in our research process where they are most appropriate.

In order to fully understand and design for equity, we must investigate the full picture. When working to understand systems and structures born out of inequality, we use the impartial lens of an investigative journalist to avoid bias and incorrect facts. We will do this by working with various organizations and experts across numerous disciplines to gain a better understanding of the physical and social structures of equality and inequality. 

However, when dealing with something as personal and as deep as inequity, we cannot only allow a detached, surface-level approach. We must get as close to communities experiencing these situations as possible to truly understand and empathize with their story. By elevating and deeply listening to an unfiltered account of individuals and their lived experiences, we hope to gain a deeper, personal, understanding of how architecture shapes and perpetuates inequity.

Once we have our research, synthesizing inputs into concrete, scalable design metrics is critical. To understand what concrete design details can contribute to creating equitable spaces, we must follow the user-centric design thinking process. From the design thinking process, our methodology adopts the ideation, prototype, and test phases to better develop general and applied design insights. 

  1. Ideation: Using the research, brainstorm -without limitations- design interventions to enhance equity. Then, narrow down interventions to the best and most applicable.
  2. Application: To create scalable design interventions:
    1. Enhance: Resend proposed interventions to a select panel of earlier interviewees & research subjects and consider alterations based upon potential user insight.
    2. Prototype: Implement a small scale design intervention in a given community or area and use insights from that to inform, enhance, and revamp a larger scale implementation.
    3. Test: Implement the project in a given area, revisit within the first few months to ensure it is working as needed. Continue to repeat the Investigative Design process to ensure the design metrics are relevant.

See also:

The Nitty Gritty Process.

Our Code of Ethics. 

Investigative Design is a part of the Design for Equity methodology. We further our work in our code of ethics piece and our more detailed back-end process. We've separated these works to keep everything streamlined and neater, but we've linked them above for you in our commitment to transparency.

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