Boundary Objects in Design: An Ecological View of Design Artifacts
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Traditionally, Systems Analysis and Design (SAD) research has focused on ways of working and ways of modeling. Design ecology – the task, organizational and political context surrounding design – is less well understood. In particular, relationships between design routines and products within ecologies have not received sufficient attention. In this paper, we theorize about design product and ecology relationships and deliberate on how design products – viewed as boundary objects – bridge functional knowledge and stakeholder power gaps across different social worlds. We identify four essential features of design boundary objects: capability to promote shared representation, capability to transform design knowledge, capability to mobilize for action, and capability to legitimize design knowledge. We show how these features help align, integrate, and transform heterogeneous technical and domain knowledge across social worlds as well as mobilize, coordinate, and align stakeholder power. We illustrate through an ethnography of a large aerospace laboratory how two design artifacts – early proto-architectures and project plans – shared these four features to coalesce design processes and propel successful movement of designs across social worlds. These artifacts resolved uncertainty associated with functional requirements and garnered political momentum to choose among design solutions. Altogether, the study highlights the importance of design boundary objects in multi-stakeholder designs and stresses the need to formulate sociology-based design theories on how knowledge is produced and consumed in complex SAD tasks.
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