Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel on Emancipatory Research and Design Thinking

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The School of Human Ecology recently welcomed Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, a Teaching Fellow from the Stanford d.School, to talk about her work with emancipatory research and design thinking. Dr. Noel’s PhD in Design, Master’s degree in Business Management, and Stanford Fellowship are just a few of many admirable accomplishments under her belt. She now uses her expertise and own experiences to develop and share an emancipatory design and research agenda.

Dr. Noel’s campus talks featured the intersections of emancipatory research and design thinking, showing SoHE students and faculty how the two methodologies can benefit each other in what are traditionally considered contrasting fields: academic research and design. She challenges designers to ask themselves how they can be more emancipatory in their practice, and researchers to ask themselves how they might leverage design thinking.

Dr. Noel describes emancipatory research – also known as transformative research – as a research practice intended to “create ‘emancipation and social justice’ and to correct the power imbalance in research design between ‘privileged researchers’ and their research subjects from traditionally marginalized or oppressed groups such as the economically disadvantaged.” In other words, until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story. Dr. Noel uses this West African Proverb to highlight an easily-overlooked divide between storyteller and subject matter that is perpetuated by a power imbalance.

When we look at the research phase of design thinking, practitioners tend to emphasize empathy. However, empathy research can be unintentionally skimmed over when we use just the typical methods engrained in many a designer’s mind: Ask Why, why why. Understand your user. Understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Leave your assumptions at the door. But are these basic questions a good enough first step? Or are they just that: too basic?

Emancipatory research goes beyond the almost-cliche term empathy research. It does indeed require a design thinker to challenge their assumptions and ask why, why, why – but it also requires one to identify power structures and social relations before and during the research process. For a researcher, it’s about confronting concurring societal oppressions by identifying the implications of research production on social relations.

So, how does one confront the issue of power structures? Dr. Noel has some methods for us to try. To begin, we can use the Positionality Worksheet: 12 things that help me see the water that I swim in! A positionality statement helps one gain a greater self-awareness by understanding personal biases and where they stem from. Identifying factors in your own background can help you identify and challenge assumptions you might have.

Tells you about your personal biases based on different components

Language and terminology also impact power dynamics and perpetuate the divide between designers, researchers, subjects, and the community. Dr. Noel works on closing the terminology gap that separates the academic and design disciplines by creating a Designer’s Alphabet. This project – still in the prototype phase – captures words and terms that designers may use that academic researchers may not be familiar with, and visa versa. Even more, this alphabet makes both fields accessible.

SoHE is uniquely positioned to begin an emancipatory agenda – and we should.

In SoHE, we tend to speak of social justice in our work. And in today’s world, design frequently becomes about social justice. Thus, SoHE is uniquely positioned to begin an emancipatory agenda – and we should. To begin, we can think about adding emancipatory research and evaluation to our practice. But we can also integrate our disciplines and learn from each other. Working across departments might be the first step to becoming more emancipatory as designers and more design-abled researchers.


If you’d like to get started on your own emancipatory work, Dr. Noel recommends Transformative Research and Evaluation by Donna M. Mertens. Learn more about Dr. Noel and her work here. And, you can follow her on LinkedIn.

Curious about design thinking trends? During her visit, Dr. Noel also demonstrated the emerging shift from the design thinking phases to what the Stanford d.School now calls the “design abilities.” These abilities shift away from the process of design thinking, but retain the experiential, visual, and cyclical aspects. Learn more about the abilities and how they can be integrated into your practice here.

Moving towards design abilities and away from design thinking steps

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