Social research can sometime take the form of creative collaboration. Co-design methods in particular allow researchers to involve the people they study in a more participatory way. Co-design is rooted in the Participatory Design (PD) approach, which was born in Scandinavia – and it can effectively be used in user research processes for digital technology.
In co-design, physical artifacts of various type are often used to understand challenges and to give shape to future possibilities together with people. Researchers may use cultural probes, design prototypes and generative toolkits.
With the methods of co-design researchers are able to elicit tacit knowledge and knowledge embedded in everyday practices. In other words designers become facilitators, making sure that users are in the condition not only to express their expectations and challenges, but also to imagine and explore new perspectives. Design researchers investigate what people say (via interviews and or surveys), what people do (with field observation) and what they make and imagine (with design games, probes etc).
When using co-design methods the user research phase turns into a mutual learning experience. The process is often participatory also in the ways research results are shared with users – which differs drastically from most “classic” anthropological research (where the researcher seldom shares her findings with informants).
You can read more on participatory design and co-design here.