The 10 most common myths surrounding design research. Part 1

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It would seem a standard practice by now, when everyone agrees we should design things and systems around human needs, to conduct research before designing. After all, you need to understand and frame the problem you will be designing for…right?

It turns out there are quite a few common misconceptions about research, both from people who are skeptical about the value it can bring and from people who have inflated expectations about what design research can deliver. So based on my experience working as a researcher, here is a list of common misconceptions surrounding design research.

  1. You will “find” insights during fieldwork

One of the most common myths about design research is that basically, you “find” insights whenever you are doing fieldwork. They are out there, they’re actual entities and you just need to go and find them like if they were mushrooms. Once you find them, you will document them and bring them back to the office.

Oh look! I found an insight! and another! and another!

What lies beneath this discrepancy stems from having a different framework of what is the nature of reality and what is evidence of knowledge. If you think this way then you are assuming that the world is ruled by inmutable natural laws and that these laws can be deducted through observation, measurement and empirical experiments. The world is thus, quantifiable and measurable. Within this view of what knowledge is and what is a valid evidence of knowledge, it makes sense to think that you will “find” your answers in the “natural environment”. This is the scientific paradigm and it works well to study the natural world but it does not quite work to understand social issues or people’s behavior.

We use an ethnographic approach. The basic assumption is that we do not believe that there exists an objective reality but rather that there are multiple, socially constructed realities that are not easily reduced to numbers. To know something requires interaction between the researcher and the object of our inquiry, thus, the researcher is the “instrument” through which we know something. When we analyze the data, we will build a consensus of what this data means for us and for the people who participated in the study. The insights are constructed by the researchers together. It is not just documenting observations and giving them to the client.

2. People don’t know what they want.

Oh if I had a euro for every time I heard this. Usually people say this to justify why they are not doing any research. If people don’t know what they want why bother asking them or doing any research at all, right? They usually end up quoting Henry Ford… yeah, clever, a faster horse.

So tell me what you want! What you really really want!

It is true that people are not designers, innovators or the new Steve Jobs. We are the designers, that’s our job, not theirs. So, people who object research with this argument are implying two things: the first one is that design research is about asking people what they want and then just giving participants that and the second one is that the job of the researcher is simply to document and collect data and then mindlessly give it to the client.

Regarding the first point, we do research not to ask people what they want, but to understand what their context, motivations, expectations and problems are. Sometimes people will say “I want X”, but we want to understand why they want X. What are they trying to solve or achieve with X? Regarding the second point, it can happen that a participant says she want the product to be free, to fly and to prepare her morning coffee but a skilled researcher will guide the conversation into something we can work with, and then of course we will analyze her discourse to understand what does she actually mean. Nothing is taken literal or at face value.

3. Co-creation is getting solutions directly from customers.

When we propose co-creation sessions with customers, some people assume that what we want to do is ask people to directly provide us with solutions. This is accompanied by either enthusiasm — because they think we will get free (great) ideas — or skepticism because they think we will take crappy ideas from customers and give them those.

A productive day churning out design solutions

When we use co-creation from a research perspective, what we are really doing is providing participants with ambiguous stimuli and then they will project their wishes, fears, desires and emotions into them. This technique is based on projective tests used in psychology. We are assuming that there are aspects of the human mind that are unconscious or hidden, and that they are difficult to reveal posing direct questions or applying standard tests or questionnaires. We use these techniques when we want to probe deeper and see beneath what’s obvious. We want to take the participant away from a literal discourse and into a symbolic and abstract discourse to understand deep seated emotions. We don’t really care that much about what they build with Legos or the collage they create, but rather we want to hear what they say about their creations. The really interesting data comes from that conversation, not from the artifacts people made.

We can also do co-creation ideation sessions, but the objective is rarely to take those ideas literally and turn them directly into solutions, rather, we want to map challenges, build consensus, understand the constraints the company would have (or need to overcome) to implement a given solution and the capabilities the client organization has. The ideas produced in the session are conversation props and not solutions. Sometimes they can be validation sessions, with designers working together with clients and users, actually co-designing a solution and refining it in real time. But we never will take ideas a user said and take them as a solution to be implemented just the way it is.

4. We already know everything about our customers.

This is another perception people have and we often hear this as an excuse not to do any research. This one is particularly tricky, because what we have seen in our experience is that there are two options. Either, the organization already has commissioned a research institute a study in the past and they use this study as a basis to claim they know “everything” or they rely on word of mouth from people who are in contact with the customers. In the first case, if the organization has already a study, for us it’s great news. It means they believe research is useful, they are willing to pay for it and we have a basis we can work with. We can always build on someone else’s work and find new information that we can bring to our client. It is impossible to know everything, even if they already have commissioned research in the past. We constantly work with clients that have previous studies and we can always bring them something new.

No, you don’t.

The second type of perception, believing that you know your customers from indirect sources is more insidious because often people say this speaking from personal experience. If they have direct contact with customers they truly are convinced that they know everything about them. And perhaps they do have a pretty good idea, but the point is that it is different to believe something than to know something. You know that your clients hate to call your customer service center because they complain to your sales team about it but you don’t know why does it bother them so much, or how it is affecting them. If they say the call center takes forever to answer, is the solution really just making the agents pick up the phone faster? So the two risks of having these false beliefs are to interpret literally what customers say (often while they’re angry) and to think about solutions without really understanding the root of the problem and framing it properly.

5. People lie.

Another excuse for not doing research, this time from a more cynical perspective is that people will lie to you and then you will take decisions based on false information.

Those evil research participants!

The reality is a bit less cynical but more simple than that. When people tell you something that sounds like a lie to you, often for them it’s the truth.

For example, when conducting research for a client in the home renovations industry, we visited people’s homes to understand what they would like to renovate next and why. Many of them told us that the next thing they wanted to renovate were their bathrooms, saying they were “horrible, old and just plain hideous”. When they described their bathrooms we imagined that they truly must be horrible and that these poor people must have it hard living there, using those awful bathrooms… until we saw them. Most of them, in our eyes were pristine, functioning and we could not find anything wrong with them with our naked eyes.

This is way nicer than my own bathroom.

So were they lying? No, they were not. In their eyes those bathrooms were older than 10 years, perhaps they were outdated and this was enough for people to want to burn them to the ground. They were not lying, for them it was true, their bathrooms were awful. So true that they were saving money and planning the renovation. A good researcher will try to understand why these people think and behave this way instead of disregarding them and thinking, “oh well, what a bunch of liars! let’s move on.”

Thanks for reading. You can now read part 2 here.