Sunrise in the San Antonio Valley

Research versus Research

There’s a craft of research and a science of research.

In response to comments I made on Twitter, a UX designer/researcher asked for my further thoughts. He asked:

I run a small qualitative research team at my agency. I’ve long felt that our Office of Research, who are more PhD academic-style researchers doing cognitive experiments and whatnot, look down at my type of work. I’ve tried to adapt to their lingo and position as a user research outfit. But it seems you don’t think this is a good idea. How should practical research relate to behavioral science and the academic research community? Do you think it’s okay to say to that group, “Nah, we’re not research. We’re just gathering user feedback to iterate towards greatness as fast as we can?” or something to that effect?

I replied:

Yes. Generally, the kind of field research done by designers isn’t the same animal as the research done by Researchers. They are both difficult, demanding, and rigorous, but they have different goals and different methods. Dressing one in the robes of the other won’t end well for either.

That “PhD-style” research is directed at learning about human behavior in general. That’s science. The research that interaction designers do is directed at learning about specific human motivations relative to a narrowly targeted business need. That’s craft. It should not surprise you that scientists tend to think of craft as something…less than their rarified work. It isn’t, and don’t let them instill in you any doubt about the value, importance, and difficulty of our craft.

There’s an old saying, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.” If your work doesn’t move the needle inside your organization everyone will stand aside and let you roast in the blame. But if your work makes a noticeable improvement, just watch everyone else step up and say, “I did that!” That’s why it is important to get some meta work done first.

First, use your own titles, terms, and tools. Don’t let people in the backseat drive your process or your career.

Second, establish “Before” benchmarks. Get some empirical value down on paper. It doesn’t have to be quantitative, but it has to be something that everyone can innocently examine and openly agree to. Get their public agreements down on paper.

Third, after you’ve done your work, clearly show how your efforts have altered the previously established benchmark in some positive way.

Fourth, stand back and watch the consternation. If you’re quiet and listen carefully, you can hear the paradigms colliding and preconceptions imploding! If you don’t do 1, 2, & 3, the academics (or developers, or sales, or the boss’ wife) will take credit.

If you read my blog you’ll find several posts about how I see our work, and how it relates to research. The academic stuff — the PhD-style research — is not part of the craft of design. The field studies, the ethnographic interviews, the contextual enquiry, is not only not “research,” it’s not a discipline separate from interaction design. I believe that it should be done by the interaction designers and not by a separate research group.

That’s not a common viewpoint, but Cooper has done it for 25 years and it’s one of our secret weapons. There’s a huge signal loss in handing off field work between researchers and designers, and designers need to get out in the field and smell the client. Otherwise they get all lost in their own heads, filled as they are with good design stuff.