2001: A Space Odyssey — The Dawn of Man

The Perks of Slowly Becoming a Design Researcher

Design is art and science working in harmony. Left brain meets right brain.


It is said that our ability to manipulate the environment through the tools we use is what makes us human. Although is not an exclusive human feature certainly we are the best at it. Our civilization is the product of our imagination, the best expression of the innate craving for novelty that pushed us out of the caves. Hooray for the mammalian neocortex and the precise pinching of opposable thumbs!

The framework above got me thinking about how we humans are essentially toolmakers. Yes, we design our everyday lives, we make things, systems, experiences, and build complex concepts that we extrude and bring to the physical world through our hands.

We are all creative by nature. If we want to truly understand and master the craft of design we must dig deeper into the realm of the cognitive process of learning. Many believe the human experience is born out of the amazing pattern recognition capacity that we have. The way we organize the information from the exterior shapes us and gives us a sense of self, but this is a dynamic process. Our worldview is constantly challenged and redefined by the interaction between prior experiences, emotions, and acquired knowledge from the environment around us. This incessant flux affects understanding. It acts as a filter to determine what skills are retained and what information is stored.

What this means is the tools we make are the reflection of our worldview and the things we want from it. So, design is born out of this process of marrying the subjective experience of how we see the world with the objective nature of the tools we need to make to get something done. Left brain meets right brain. Design is art and science working in harmony.

Here lies my passion to find better ways to design tools; and I see the only way to really accomplish it is by doing research, which is simply testing any assumption you might have on a design issue to dissolve controversias and act upon evidence. Generative research gives you real insights on how humans behave in the presence of a certain tool. This approach creates a rich framework for effective decision-making.

I’m only beginning to grasp the astonishing amount of existing design research methodologies. I’ve found crucial to have a multidisclipinary approach to better understand the complexity of human behaviour and its relationship with the environment and how the latter is modified by the former. We are technological beings and this is the result of evolutionary processes, there was no other way. Under this view, designers come into play by acting as facilitators that mediate between the tool and the task at hand to accomplish any goal.

But in order to truly facilitate task completion we must conduct research. The results we get will provide valuable information to ensure the tools we produce are human-centered and correspond to the mental model of the user we are designing for. Design really isn’t rocket science, it is actually an iterative process of refining an idea through testing and researching.

Eventually we’ll get to an optimal point of execution. This doesn’t mean we have found the final solution, we can call it emerging configuration instead, a momentary fix in an ever changing environment. The human social systems are staggeringly complex and dynamic. This poses a permanent challenge for designers. Never settle, never believe any assumption, test it instead, iterate, and over time test it again. The problem can and will change in front of your eyes without you even noticing.

What I’ve gained so far, from my own and slow personal development as a design researcher, is the constant itch to know what drives people’s behaviour and how they interact with the world and its systems. This is what constitutes our society after all. Technology and culture are the products of our human nature, we design them and they design us in return.

I will never stay on the cage. It makes me feel so human to not know everything. But that’s what our brains are wired for. We want to know.

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