CoLab

For design researchers, there is a pivotal moment when you discover that the part of design you love the most can also be a career. For most, especially those who come from a design background, it’s a strange, convoluted path to discover design research because even today, few undergraduates experience it. For myself and my colleagues, we found our path with the help of a few professionals who gave us guidance or took a chance on us. We’re grateful to these mentors and for the chance to help guide the next generation of design researchers.

In the fall semester of 2015, Michelle Avelis, Chris Brown, and I took on the challenge of giving 30 undergraduate product design students real-world design research experience in collaboration with Virginia Tech.

CoLab then partnered with outdoor retailer REI to sponsor a student project to address this skill gap while exploring what the future of tents could be. Professional design researchers, REI designers, and students met together to outline what they wanted to learn from consumers. Equipped with the tools and techniques needed to uncover these unmet needs and latent desires, students formed small collaborative teams to interview consumers and discover insights.

When reflecting on the experience, Virginia Tech student Carly Landers said, “This design research class exposed us to what the research field should be. It opened my eyes to that side of the design process, and the quality of my design work has soared because of it. Without this kind of research and feedback from the real users, designers wouldn’t know what direction to take. This is the epitome of human centered design.”

Daniel Perry and Sarah Kemp conduct a co-creation activity with a consumer recruited for the study.

Over the next 3 months, CoLab’s Design Research practitioners coached student teams in conducting participatory research with tent owners, and guided them through synthesizing their findings into design principles and sacrificial concepts to evaluate with consumers.

Luisa Lacsamana, Quang Pham, Sarah Ahart, Stephen Lynn, Stephen Claffy, and Laura Haggerty visualized the current experience car camper’s have from the initial purchase to the after-use storage.

Students were challenged to refrain from diving into the typical refinement phase, and instead select multiple concepts brainstormed to be evaluated with users. These concepts were measured against the design criteria established by consumers in the generative research, and the feedback was used to refine the best concept.

Adam Bujnowski and David Barret visualized how their two concepts scored with consumers based on metrics developed by consumer’s during the exploratory research phase in the class.

The class introduced industrial design students to the type of research they will potentially be receiving as designers and gave budding design researchers an understanding of how to make research actionable for designers. For a few students, the class introduced them to a new potential career. After the class, Virginia Tech student Carly Landers joined the REI design research team as a summer intern.

Learning about design research early can help change the course of a career, and knowing that inspires us to keep reaching out to students. We encourage all professionals to give back, help the next generation, and make a positive impact. Connect with a student on LinkedIn. Reach out to a school to be a guest speaker for a class. Talk to your company about sponsoring a project. Anyone can help a student. All it takes is one person to be there in a pivotal moment.


CoLab partners professionals with students to foster innovation through a collaborative learning experience. Students gain valuable design research skills through creative problem solving and hands-on real-world design challenges.

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