Design Research Maturity in Five Questions

Erika Hall
Jan 23 · 3 min read
A book or bound report rolled up and allowed to unfurl
A book or bound report rolled up and allowed to unfurl

Based on conversations I’ve been having lately, there is a strong desire for a Design Research¹ Maturity Model similar to the UX² Maturity Model floating around.

I think the framing of discipline maturity in discrete stepped stages that apply to all organizations no matter what their mission or model is an unhelpful oversimplification that leads to a lot of self-congratulatory box ticking.

The overarching Capability Maturity Model is yet another unexamined frame we’ve inherited from the Department of Defense. Maybe not as pervasive and pernicious as so-called “hard skills” and “soft skills”, but worth questioning.

Because anything worth doing is worth questioning to verify whether it’s actually worth doing.

So, for individuals in organizations that truly wish to evaluate their potential for continuous improvement in the discipline of inquiry for the purpose of product and system design, I propose these five probing questions. (I’ll eventually figure out some sort of festive pentagram to visually represent progress along each axis and what it means.)

The Five Questions

These will help you evaluate your organization’s potential to do design research well and keep getting better at articulating and manifesting your collective intentions.

1–To what extent is it safe for anyone in your organization to admit they don’t know something?

I’ve mentioned this before. Learning is impossible if you don’t acknowledge you lack knowledge. The more people feel safe to admit ignorance, the better positioned your organization is to learn continuously and share insights without impediment.

2–To what extent does inquiry start with identifying the question before picking a method?

A lot of orgs treat quantitative data like it’s inherently more valuable, or they reflexively interview users or run surveys to answer any type of question. Your question will tell you whether it’s best to read a report, run a survey, or do a round of interviews. You need to describe before you measure. If your accepted practice is sticking a ruler in the oven to find out if it’s hot, handing out more rulers won’t make you smarter.

3–To what extent is identifying and sharing questions across disciplines and departments an organizational priority?

There is a lot of energy around research repositories and knowledge sharing and not enough around getting everyone to understand what an organization needs to know and why. Nonsensical silos persist. (Why should market research and product research be divided?) Coordinated inquiry is the wellspring of efficiency and innovative thinking across disciplines. Aligning around questions also increases collaboration because individuals or teams aren’t in competition to have the one mythical winning idea.

4–To what extent is the basis of decision-making clear at every level?

It’s so easy to turn inquiry outward and ignore the realities under your own roof. An organization is the social context of decision-making and its workings must be explicitly understood by the people seeking to inform and influence.

5–To what extent do the insights that emerge from systematic inquiry inform decision-making?

This is the ultimate test. It doesn’t matter how robust the practice is if the insights it generates are easy for those in power to ignore. A functional feedback loop of goals to questions to insights operating within clear standards of evidence should be the aspiration of every organization.

[1] The need to advocate for Design Research as a practice that encompasses so much more than “user research” is my animating force

[2] Second only to digging into the implications of “user experience” design as the primary framing for a lot of work with much broader implications

I wrote a brief book on research. Even if you have the first edition, you should get this one.

If the book is not enough, you can hire me to help get your internal practice in order.

Mule Design Studio

Designed to work.

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