Data as a design material: An analysis on the challenges of working with “big data” related technologies in an industrial context

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Master's thesis
P1 OPINNÄYTTEET D 2018 Mostafa
Degree programme
Creative Sustainability
In recent years, the ability to collect, store and analyse large datasets by private companies and government agencies has increased to the point where the term “big data” has been coined to describe the phenomena. Alongside “big data”, several data processing technologies are becoming more widespread due to their effectiveness and success in everyday products and services; these are artificial intelligence, with its subsets machine learning and deep learning, and data analytics amongst others. This study investigated the challenges designers face when working with new information and communication technologies in an industrial context. More specifically, it deals with “big data” and new data processing technologies and how designers engage with them as a design material when envisioning new products and services. The research questions were (1) what challenges are designers facing when working with “big data” in a data-rich industrial context? (2) how is working with “big data” and new data collecting and processing technologies different from other design materials? (3) how can designers overcome some of the challenges of working with data? This thesis adopted a research through design approach and data was collected between June 2015 and January 2016. Furthermore, a review of the material-centred design literature was used as a theoretical framework. To answer the research questions, this thesis investigated a six-month design project done for the energy company Vattenfall. Vattenfall was at the time going through a digitalisation phase and was interested in evaluating the possibility of combining their internal data with other data sources to explore new products and services. During the six-month period, I worked in Vattenfall’s Helsinki offices, designing different concepts under the supervision of the product development team and their programme manager as my direct supervisor. Data was gathered using different qualitative methods and focusing on three areas: the design practice, the design outcomes, and the interactions with the team and stakeholders. The key findings demonstrate how the practice of design in this new technological landscape faces multiple challenges. The main challenges being (a) the high level of complexity of these technologies, (b) the lack of education/experience of the designer to work in this context, (c) the lack of competence in the organization and (d) the missing frameworks and tools for collaboration between data experts and designers. Furthermore, it was also found and validated against the literature that these new technologies present different properties not comparable with previously well-studied ones like haptics, Bluetooth and RFID. Making existing frameworks and traditional approaches to exploring new digital materials hard to replicate. The results further suggest the need for developing novel concepts and frameworks to support new ways of understanding, describing and working with “big data” and its related technologies.
Jalas, Mikko
Thesis advisor
Johnson, Mikael
design material, digital material, research through design, big data, data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, utilities sector
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