Minimum Viable Research for #DesignInTech
Earlier I wrote about three roles of design: research, strategy, craft. In this article, I’m addressing research for a particular industry: digital service industry or #DesignInTech. Within the community, there are many practical guidelines about iteratively crafting a digital prototype. We see so many tools built to support such activities, but we don’t see enough practical guidelines about iterative research to obtain insights.
When it comes to HCI or social science graduates, they might have learned many research methods that allow them to practice solving different types of problems , but most tech companies are interested in solving only problems that generate capitalistic revenue. We get to see so many common problems — with slightly different contexts and customers — being solved by the billion dollar industry. Do we really need all those research methods?
Moreover, it’s actually tricky to use the R word “research”, because R implies something thick and slow (read this 19-minute article if you really want to learn about research), not thin and quick. And don’t mention the R word to academic researchers, because your research won’t meet their scientific standard (also shared at DesignOps Summit 2018).
That’s why I always refrain from using the R word when designing in tech, because it’s not thick, slow, let alone scientifically rigorous. The industry loves MVP (minimum viable product), so the research activities need to follow suit. Otherwise, the product development team thinks that research would only slow down their work. Therefore, I’d rather call it: insight.
Minimum Viable Insight
The following picture is an MVP illustration. The analogy is a vehicle, which takes us from one point to another. The idea is to have wheels that work, that move us. There is no use we try to perfect a wheel, because we will not have time to build something within the scheduled time for us to ride it. If we start with a simple wheel and a simple board, we can have a skateboard that can make us move!
What made me borrow the Minimum Viable term?
It began during my work in an organization with hundreds of people working on multiple products, where I got to learn from the design team. Mentoring designers was very rewarding that I was able to gauge how long their processes took. Time is very important in the industrial setting.
One finding that is common across products is that research only needs a very short time compared to other processes in design (synthesis and execution). Why? Because the insights obtained from the short period is already functional a.k.a. Minimum Viable Insight (MVI), and able to get the wheels of design going. We usually got more insights during execution. The vehicle of insights gets bigger: from skateboard to bike, motorbike, and so on (similar to the concept of MVP getting bigger/better/complex after product launch because of accommodating customer feedback).
Synthesize: the first insights are captured from research results and opportunity areas are discussed. It is the stage where researchers stop working alone. In the picture below, after 2 days of research, a researcher works with minimum 2 other people to qualitatively process it to discover themes. This can include discovering opportunities, but it should not be finalized. Finalizing the opportunity areas needs to be done with as many stakeholders as possible: e.g. the business, marketing, engineering, and operations.
Execute: the researchers need to be involved in developing the prototype. This is not yet the actual production (implementation) of the system, because this is where concepts are tested. Crafters work side by side with researchers in prototyping from lo-fi to hi-fi, where insights keep coming. Researchers need to know how the different prototyping tools can help provide different insights. For example paper (for product behavior), cards (for information architecture), existing design artifact (e.g. competitor’s product), and software tools (e.g. wireframing). Researchers also need to know who need to receive the subsequent insights, e.g. crafters, software engineers, business/marketing strategists.
The above diagram covers only the design process, where designers are leading. After the design execution done, the artifact is ready for production where engineers are leading. In this stage, crafters are still in charge. They’re responsible in ensuring good usability and implementability of the solutions. That’s why crafters need to be savvy in working with users (for usability evaluation) and engineers (for technical implementation).
Now, since we don’t use the R word let’s call the researchers Concept Designer, because a full-scale (thick and slow) design researcher usually works in R&D, not in production. Likewise, we can call the crafters Tech Designer. Everyone in the design team is a designer!
1. Google has Rapid UX Research
2. “Dual Track Agile” by Dave Landis (see the red path below where MVI is obtained)
3. Indi Young (see the opportunity backlog below on the right part “solution space” where MVI is kept) and note that the left part “problem space” is where actual R is done.
Embracing Research as MVI
If you are a product person coming from tech, don’t be scared by hearing the R word! It’s important that you understand the proper design process by not confusing product design with solution building, so you’ll know where to weave in the researchers in your process.
If you are a research person coming from social science, jump into the thin and quick dynamics!
- Aim for synthesis after analysis. Get to understand the process and the vision of the product, so you’ll know how you need to adjust R for the specific context.
- Switch your perspective. Think of research by way of goal instead of process. See it as a way to get insights instead of a task you have to perform. Stop saying “I’ll research it”, but “I’ll get the first insights on it”. Because after the MVI, you’ll find more insights along the way.
Here is a nice practical guideline on getting the MVI by Erika Hall, the author of Just Enough Research. What about getting the subsequent insights after MVI? Well, just move with the wheels — you’ll discover them!
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