What is Design Research?
Practical Design Research is very different from Pure Research and Applied Research
Simply put, research is systematic inquiry. You want to know more about a particular topic, so you go through a process to increase your knowledge. The type of process depends on who you are and what you need to know.
A lot of personal research these days begins with a Google query and ends on a Wikipedia page.
Finding information is relatively easy. The knowledge already exists. You just have to find a trustworthy source for it. Assessing credibility is the hard part. As Abraham Lincoln had aptly put, don’t trust everything you read on the internet.
Pure research is carried out to create new human knowledge, whether to uncover new facts or fundamental principles. The researcher or investigator wants to advance a particular field, such as behavioural science, by answering a particular question, such as “Why do people steal?”
Pure research is based on observation or experimentation. The results are published in peer-reviewed journals. This is science. Rigorous standards and methodologies exist to preserve objectivity and ensure the credibility of conclusions. But at the end, the more work you have done and the more obscure researches you have quoted, the more detailed your paper becomes.
Applied research borrows ideas and techniques from pure research to serve a specific real-world goal, such as creating Skynet, or improving the quality of education in rural India, or finding new ways to market ginger-flavoured beer.
While ethics are just as important in applied research, methods are much more relaxed. This in some way means tweaking the questions you ask, or making the most of your imperfect sample group because you’re tight on time.
The research is successful to the extent that it contributes to the stated goal. As with pure research, sometimes you accidentally discover something valuable you weren’t even looking for, and that’s a fantastic bonus. It is hackable, which helps you prove your initial hypothesis. Everyone is happy.
And then there is design research.
Design research is a broad term with a long history. In the 1960s, design research referred to the study of design itself, its purpose and processes. This is still how the term is used in academia today.
There are various institutes of design research around the world, mostly involved in large existential or small theoretical questions couched in highly specialised academic language.
However, when Interaction Designers refer to design research, they typically mean research that is integral to the design work itself — inquiries that are part of designing, not about design.
This research focuses largely on understanding the people for whom we’re designing, often referred to by the term end users. Research is a core part of user-centred design.
Design research both inspires imagination and informs intuition through a variety of methods with related intents: to expose patterns underlying the rich reality of people’s behaviours and experiences, to explore reactions to probes and prototypes, and to shed light on the unknown through iterative hypothesis and experiment.
Design research requires us to approach familiar people and things as though they are unknown to us to see them clearly. Also, asking our own questions and knowing how to find the answers is a critical part of being a designer.
Discovering how and why people behave as they do and what opportunities that presents for the business or organisation will open the way to more innovative and appropriate design solutions than asking how they feel or merely tweaking the current design based on analytics.
One can find that when the hard questions are asked, the job of a designer gets much easier. One will have stronger arguments, clarity of purpose, and the freedom to innovate that only comes with truly knowing one’s constraints.