Material Story Lab


Material Story Lab is a lab at Aalborg University placed in Nordkraft. Anete Mikkala Camille Strand have written her Phd about the method and have since spread knowledge about it as a lecturer (Adjunkt) at AAU.

Her inbox have

Method: Matrial Story Lab



Our introduction to Method: MSL

To gain insight into the method behind the Material Story Lab (abbreviated henceforth as MSL) we knew, as a group of designers with different backgrounds, that we had to get some experience with MSL. Using the ”Insight Combination method (Kolko, 2010) we got our experience through observations of MSL

We started the design process by observing the method behind MSL through ethnographic studies and video observation. We were introduced to MSL and the different ways it could be used professionally. Other students have used MSL in the study of journalism and how people can create knowledge. The method has also been used for team building and to study high-potential people in organizations and group interviews. We have tested the method ourself in relation to both our personal starting points, process and ending point to this project and our professional group work. Some of us went into this method with some skepticism which also made it exciting to find out if our skepticism was justified or maybe that the method have many advantages. We started to select some objects and characters that could represent our past, present and future. Then we describe the background of our choice of figures. It was quite interesting the stories that lay behind the various group members choice of figures. After that we prepared the sandbox so it was ready for us to put things down in it. In silence the different group members put different figures and toys in the sandbox. Part of the method is also based on that other group members can remove or move figures around in the sandbox. It was interesting to see both which figures were selected and which figures through the process were removed or moved around in the sandbox. After that the persons explain the meaning of their chosen by figures and toys in the sandbox. It was interesting to see how people’s choices are built on objects and associations.

We also conducted interviews where we often asked clarifying questions when necessary to gain more experience and new insight with the method.

”Key to innovative design is an understanding of the user” – (Chayutsahakij & Poggenpohl, 2002)

Hjørring Municipality and MSL

We interviewed a team leader from the building department at Hjørring Municipality, who has used the method in his work. He saw it as a creative process that challenge his way of looking at problems. But he also told that some of his colleagues have been skeptic about the method. The reason for this skepticism was that the technical educational staff would judge the method´s aspect by their normal thinking with numbers and calculations.

We reflect on his answers and discussed that our potential product had to support future creative processes but at the same time provide a platform that can clarify the theory and remove any skepticism. A solution to this problem could be the development of a digital handbook about the MSL.

We also interviewed the team leader´s boss and head of engineering and environmental matters in Hjørring. He has used the method many times and is in regular dialogue with Aalborg University about MSL. The dialogue between him and Aalborg University often contains very strategic-oriented content. He sees it as a weakness to the concept that people should go to a certain place to learn about MSL. But he was positive about using a digital solution for spreading knowledge about MSL. But for him, there was also a pitfall in relation to such a possible digital solution. He is in favor of people using the method according to their focus, but he is at the same time aware of a weakness about the method. As he said in the interview it is not just a method the method has to be used the right way, it has been developed over a long time, so you have to respect the quality inherent and set a special focus on the facilitator in his opinion. He believed that a business model in relation to a MSL service could be a solution to various problems inherent in the use and spread of this method. He has used MSL in different contexts, for example in relation to the arrangement of City Hall in Hjørring. He have also used it with Hjørring Municipality to study possible research assignments in cooperation department of communication at Aalborg University. Through the use of the method, Hjørring Municipality have been forced, in a positive way, to think and behave differently to things because you have to turn it into something physical in a sandbox where it is specifically in relation to what you have to deal with. He sees it as an advantage that this method makes it visual and abstract.

A key issue and reflection in our considerations was if our product should be physically or digital or a mixture of both. When we say a pure digital solution we mean a solution where all components and elements have been digitized on a tablet computer. There are both advantages and disadvantages to both approaches which we consideredon in the group. A pure digital solution is very useful when it comes to spreading information around and create a modern and different kind of experience that you do not normally experience through physically platform. The disadvantages however could be that a pure digital solution may lose important elements in the interaction between the users and the method. We also reflected about how the methodological quality could be maintained, but at the same time, spread to include other foci than traditional ones. We thought it might be a solution with some sort of certification of MSL.

Observation and interview trip to Brabrand about MSL

We have also been on an observation and interview trip to Brabrand near Aarhus where we talked to some respondents who have used the method behind the Material story lab in practice. The interview took place at a daycare center which is a collection of some smaller units of child care centers. Present at the meeting were two educational leaders as well as a day care leader at Aarhus Municipality. Their approach to the method behind the Material Story Lab started when the day care leader took a Master in Public Management at Aalborg University and as part of her master thesis she used Material Story Lab as a method and empirical. All the leaders from the day care center came to Aalborg University and the Material Story Lab at Nordkraft and built their challenges in a sandbox. The day care leader learned the method during one of the modules for her master programs in power and ethics.

The method was first met with some skepticism from the respondents in the daycare and its relation to the real world. The respondents said afterward that the method later made much more sense when they discussed the method and went through the process of using the method among each other. This was also evident after the process was videotaped and transcribed as a part of the master degree of the daycare leader. We reflect on the context of our own experience with the use of the method and how we got more insight into the methodology of Material Story Lab through the process of testing the methodology ourself. The respondents expressed that they were happy about using the method because it make them understand problems better in their organization understood through symbolism in the shapes they used in the sandbox and through the shapes movement in the sandbox. It also gave them an overview of the actual problem. They used the method later on a personal level by getting concrete with the, like a figure from the lab to remember what they learned. But they have not actually used the method forward in their work.

At daycare instituation they also expressed that the method had potential to be use in their work in different ways, but that it required continuous exercise in method. They said that you will always go in with a preconceived understanding of the method and in their opinion depends much where you are in your life now and which meanings you give the objects in the sandbox. They replied that they could use guidelines if they have to use it later in the leader team.

When asked about the possibility of seeing other people’s reflections with the method they told that they could use more reflection. They mentioned four ways of learning as a method to understand the method behind the Material Story Lab. They were also positive towards the idea that we could come out with sandboxes to reality and use it practical. When asked about if they thought it would be possible to use the method in digital for they answered that they could see both advantages and disadvantages about using the method online

We reflect on their answers and discussed a way in which the method can get out to people in a physical form. But a digital solution can be incorporated into this physical solution in various ways. A possible solution could be that you can order a sandbox from a kind of mail-order system. You could receive a specific set of things, and receive instruction, or an instructor with the purchase.

Old Friends Industries and MSL

We talked with a writer and founder of the consulting firm Old Friends Industries in Copenhagen over the phone using the method and used the suitcase in consultancy assignments. He has also collaborated with students at the communication student program at Aalborg University about MSL. He conducted concerts and jobs in relation to organizations by using elements from the method behind MSL. Like in MSL he use objects and metaphors to open some processes.

He gave us some examples of how he has used elements of the method in his professional work. This could be a workshop about the valuable co-operation and develop something in the future. He mixes music with organizational techniques to get people to talk more together in an organizations. He wants his customers to experience new aspects and reflections. He also use theater in his courses in connection with organizational development.

He has worked with objects relative to values with a suitcase like MSL. You walk into a room and examine something based on some other objects creating something new inspiration. He also makes references to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty who talks about recognition through the body. He gives an example that using your body to remember is a another way to use your body and knowledge. He knew a teacher at UCN who more directly use the original philosophy and logic behind MSL. He was positive about sharing experiences with other people about the method. He also think it was important to have a page with some quality control and prioritization of knowledge. He could also see the advantages and disadvantages of the digital use of the method. He thought it might be a good idea to make a prototype and test it first before it can be released to common use.

We reflect on his answers and discussed how we could use what he said in our work process. We reflect on his method of MSL that was very different from the other approaches we have gained experience and insight about during our work process. We reflect that our product should also contain a workshop element as well as a form of evaluation and data collection so people can get some information back about the method which can be use in the future in a professional context.

Interview with a occupational therapist about MSL

We talked with a occupational therapist who have learned or used MSL in connection with her Master in learning and change processes at Aalborg University. She used it with the staff at Aabenraa Municipality family and youth center and used it to develop a model for intra-peer supervision. She used the method in her work with autistic girls and working with make peer supervision with her colleagues and spread the approach out into their work. She has experienced some few examples where the girls she works with have expressed thing that has been surprising to her. That some things are developed by working in a descriptive manner with MSL in sand boxes. She believes that it will never be the same if the method is moved to a digital platform because you lose the feeling with the figures and the things used in sand boxes. She was also positive about a group or platform where she and others can share their experience with MSL. He also believes that there should be some kind of confidentiality agreement and a closed forum to ensure confidentiality. In addition to this she finds an open forum nessecary. People who want to learn about the method can be further informed about the various details of MSL from the open forum. The terms must also be described to make it easier for people who do not know about the method to understand and accept it. But it is still important to ensure the quality of the method and the message of the method is maintained in one way or another.

What she said made us once again reflect on how much digital and how much physical should be a part of our product. But through our reflection we decided that our product should as a minimum should contain a online platform of some kind where people will share their experience about MSL. Her thoughts about MSL and a possible platform led us to reflect on the issue of safety and confidentiality again.

Selection and deselection of methods

In the light of our video observations and interviews, it became clear through our new experiences, insights and reflections that we had to put some structure and method into our work process for creating a clarity about where we were going. One of the first challenges in our project was the respondent’s reluctance to provide assignments and parts of the concept to others. We could understand her reluctance in the sense that she wanted to maintain the quality of the method behind MSL.

We therefore used a method to illustrate to our respondent that she had to let go and be open to new ideas in relation and use to MSL. We set the illustration up as a story about a person who grows up and become more independent like the method that should become more independent and useful for other people when they use the method in the future in their focus area. In the middle of the model there was the illustration and on each side were respectively the barriers and the solutions that could work with in relation with the problem of providing and allowing the method to others.

We made a Design Fiction Matrix which is a x and y axis model which we used as part of a brainstorm of ideas to a product based on our interviews and observations of our respondent and users of MSL. On the x-axis on the left side there is a heading which represent the past and on the right side there is a heading which represent present. In the bottom of the y-axis there is a heading which represent fictions.

In the area between the past and the facts is the stories. This point covers the different input we got from the various users about MSL. In terms of research and education we recognized together that the method can be used to study areas such as the study of User driven organization as a learning design, journalisme and high potential in organization in group interviews etc. We also recognized together that the method can be used professional in the work with teambuilding, collection of information and the work with people with dyslexia and in performance and development reviews etc. We equally recognized that the method has its advantages in relation to building challenges, recognize personality behind a project or a method, understand problems and understand things through symbolism etc.

In the area between fact and future is signals. This point covers the more technical and theoretical necessities to a possible product. For us and our work process has been things like optimizing the users’ time and resources, retain the users focus on the product, create touchpoints for the users, making a product with confidentiality for the users, research the necessary rights and sharing opportunities for different platforms that we could use in our product.

In the area between future and fiction is scenarios and possibilities like design fiction. This point covers the possible platforms and ideas in relation to a possible product. In relation to our work process we recognized together that we could optimize the MSL website, make a Wiki, develop a community with different circles and groups for people who also want to share their experience and knowledge about the method, develop a newsletter system about MSL, make a Handbook about MSL, use a web-robot which continually uploads prewritten content to a blog or forum, make a certification system or a physical suitcase people can order.

In the area between fiction and past is myths. This point covers the misconceptions about MSL such as that the concept only is for academics, it is a hippie-like method, that the method is time consuming and unusable for use, that it is hard to end up with something concrete using the me, that it is too far from the normal work habits, to primitive and out of the comfort zone

In connection with our work process and idea development we used the ouroboros model (Gudiksen, 2014) to get a new perspective on our concept and the problem of time and resources in connection with our users and respondent. The background of these reflections and analyzes is based on that we as designers can build a concept up for our respondent but if the respondent has neither the time or the resources to put the concept into action the concept can become irrelevant in practice. This model gave us a new approach to concept development which we have not thought about in the first place in connection with our work process. We created touch points in the ouroboros model to create an understanding of the users knowledge cycle about MSL. A cycle could be that they hear about MSL like on facebook and they book a time on the website for a physical meeting. They participate in a physical meeting with a workshop and sees an opportunity with the method. They seek relevant material and information about the method on the internet and subsequently acquires the physical tools for the method. They use what they have learned in their own workshops and regularly share material with others who have worked it MSL. Eventually they want to be certified in MSL.

Creating a story through storyboards

After we gained experience and insight about MSL through our interview, video observations and own experience with the method behinde MSL we got an idea about which design options that could be an option. Following the methods we have already used and the input we got from the different user we created some visual illustrations through four video snippets to clarify the idea proposals we had to our respondent.
Our cardboard blackboard with all our storyboard

Storyboard 1

Storyboard 2

Storyboard 3

Storyboard 4