Using IBIS as an organization method for your research
Using IBIS as an organization method for your research

When you ask a Product Designer what is the process of designing digital products the answer may vary depending on the context, but you'll likely find a common ground on phases like: Understand, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. This process is known as Design Thinking and its approach is based on user-centered research and ideation. Getting to know about users and the problem you're facing requires some inquiry involving important stakeholders, and this article is going to be about that.

While conducting the understanding phase of several projects I realised that after gathering a great amount of information, designers encounter a difficult situation: making sense of all this data. Working as a User Research in the past I found a different approach that helped me achieve success delivering conclusions amongst large amounts of data, mostly qualitative. This approach is called IBIS (Issue-based information system).

The Issue-based information system developed in 1970 (Kunz and Rittel), has elements that when working together can clarify the most wicked problems. They are: issues (a controversial question), positions (possible answers or insights) and arguments (supports or objects a position).

The elements of IBIS explained visually, Issue on top, Argument on bottom right and Position on bottom left

Issues

Issues can be categorised in types of knowledge, or, how I like to use it: as types of questions that needs to be answered. These types are:

  • Factual: Is X the case?
  • Deontic: Should X be the case?
  • Explanatory: What causes X?
  • Instrumental: How can X be brought about?
  • Conceptual: What do you mean by 'X'?

Factual knowledge is the one you know it happened, what in fact is or will be in the future, deontic knowledge is more about what ought to be or to become, explanatory knowledge is about the why something is what it is, or ought to be, instrumental knowledge is the one that will provide us the ways we can change something. The last one, conceptual knowledge, is about the meaning of words and statements.

Positions

When someone answers to a question we call it a position. In some types of issues we will encounter positions with opposing viewpoints: "Yes it's like that" or "No, it's not like that". Other types will result in an open list of positions, because well, people are free to answer how they think it's best. What if an issue is questionable? Every issue can have its confrontation to exist and this can be a position.

Arguments

Arguments are the evidence that supports or objects to a position. One position can have a different number of arguments to support or object to it, but arguments may support or object more than one position.

Now that you know the concept and basics of IBIS, it's time to use the most important feature of this system, the relationships you can create between its elements, issues, positions and arguments.

Relationships

You can find countless types of linguistic relationships between elements but for a starting point follow these examples:

  • To support - 'an issue supports a position or argument'
  • To object to - 'an issue objects to a position or an argument'
  • To respond to - 'a position responds to an issue'
  • To generalize - 'an issue generalizes another issue'
  • To specify - 'an issue specifies another issue'
  • To refer to - 'an issue refers to another issue'
  • To question - 'an argument questions a position or other argument'

One of the most common knowledge between designers is thinking visually, this can come in handy when using the IBIS system to organize and clarify your thoughts of your research. How do these issues, positions and arguments can be interrelated? I've created a simple template to organize your issues, positions and arguments in a visual way, not too fancy, but efficient.

Types of cards explained visually. From left to right: Issue, Position, Argument (Supports to), Argument (Objects to)

1. Card types

First of all I created cards for each element of IBIS: Issues, Positions and Arguments. This can be done with any design software like Figma, Sketch, Adobe XD and etc, or you can simply do it on a google spreadsheet like I do.

2. Write the issues

Fill the issue cards with the problems and opportunities you have related to your research.

3. Place the positions beneath related issues

Placing the positions under issue cards makes it easier to scan through the document and interrelate them with the problems we're tackling. If one or more positions are related to more than one issue, you can repeat them (like I do) or create a visual diagram (like the example).

4. Write the arguments and color them

Save red and green colors to arguments. Putting them under positions and colored like that will create a sort of a heatmap on positions that have more objections opposed to the ones that have more support. You can do the same thing with positions if one argument is related to more than one position.

5. Scan your document and write down your primary conclusions

With the four steps above you can now analyze the information checking which positions are more solid by marking the ones that have more support than objections. Counting the cards may help so it doesn't look too subjective. However, don't take this as a statistic truth because we're dealing with qualitative data and for that we would need a large number of information that doesn't fit this approach. Another thing you can do is star those positions that "won" more support and create a prioritization of them.

Visual diagram of cards representing how Rodrigo uses the system. Issue cards on top, position cards below and below position cards, argument cards.

To wrap up, IBIS is a solid organizational system for your research, whether you're working on the design field or not. From personal experience I recommend using it for specific methods such as User Interviews, Stakeholder Interviews, Desk research, Market research and to more broad researches that involve mixed methods, it helped me understand which ideas, positions and assumptions were the most aligned with users needs.

References

Issue-Based Information Systems for Design - Noble, Douglas and Rittel, Horst W.J. 1988

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown