Artifact Analysis is a process by which an artifact is used to better understand its users and the culture in which it typically exists. It also serves as an opportunity for a design researcher to systematically generate insights and inspiration for future product/service designs.
This is an active process; an object will not communicate valuable information to the researcher unless he or she asks questions of it. These questions are often more fruitful when they begin with “Why” or “How.” Additional primary or secondary research may be necessary to fully explore the implications of an artifact’s design. For example, a design researcher may ask of a hub cap “Why does this have non-functional spokes?”
By considering the various aspects of an artifact, particular lines of questioning may emerge. Some of these aspects may include: material, construction, historical, aesthetic, interactive, functional, and spatial. Considering possible unintended uses of an artifact may open up additional avenues for inquiry as well.
Advantages: does not require human research participants; can yield unexpected insights; may be used to study people/cultures across both space and time.
Disadvantages: not always easy or possible to confirm findings; limited to whichever artifacts are available; observations run a risk of cultural bias.
In Things, an episode of WNYC’s Radiolab, the hosts and guests conduct artifact analysis and recount stories in which artifact analysis plays a crucial role.
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren contains a guide and tips for analyzing a particular type of artifact: books. Though, at a detailed level, the suggestions are specific to the written word, many of the general principles may be abstracted to other types of artifacts.
Martin, Bella, and Bruce M. Hanington. Universal Methods of Design 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2012. 14.
Martin and Hanington offer an excellent, concise explanation of Artifact Analysis.
Kumar, Vijay. 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2013. 114.
Kumar outlines a variation on artifact analysis, Cultural Artifacts, in which artifacts are used to inspire a deeper conversation between a researcher and participant than would be possible with a typical interview. In a sense, this format encourages the participant to conduct an artifact analysis.
Adler, Mortimer Jerome, and Charles Lincoln Doren. How to Read a Book. Revised and Updated ed.
As explained above, this comprehensive guide by Adler and Doren covers methods by which one can effectively read and analyze fiction and non-fiction books.