User research at Whirlpool LATAM

Designers and Researchers, a point of view.

Hi! Thank you for drop by. This article is a fragment of severals that I am writing about Design, Designers (innovators, creators, disruptors) and their processes (or those who uses those methods) on how to create anything, such as products (digital or physical), cultural or service rituals, ideas and any other innovative human expression. So, let see where it will lead, and I hope you enjoy it.

A few years ago, a former colleague asked me about the difference between Design Research and “Standard Research” (“standard” in this text refers to any field study, qualitative or quantitative, made by a non-design approach, especially for a marketing purpose. Yeah, it is messy but is all I got so far, and maybe I will write about it later.) and I felt myself in a ‘dead-end,’ for a couple of seconds. Then, popped out there in my mind a very simple graphic from Brenda Laurel, from her book Design Research: Methods and Perspectives that saved on that "stressful" moment!(since I lent the book to someone and never received it back, I will draw the graphic in the way a remember).

Based on Brenda Laurel graphics

As we can see, there are three different approaches (what people ‘Say,’ ‘Do’ and ‘Make’) to gather human’s needs. The dotted line represents the ‘Design scope (below)’ and the ‘Regular scope (above).’ Meaning, Designers Researchers takes care of what people ‘Do.’ An observational study, such as ethnography, and shadowing, in order to understand their relationship with the surroundings (artifacts and cultural and social rituals expressed by services or organizational structures) and what people ‘Make’ (the results of a human expression to represent their current and future needs and or desires). In the other hand, ‘Standard Researchers’ will focus on what people ‘Say’ (what they express answering an inquiry or expressing their feelings and thoughts) and what people ‘Do’ (also observational research but more related to social interactions).

That simple drawing totally satisfied my inquisitor in that period, but not me. :) Since I was questioned about it, I started to thought about it, to look at it and, especially, to observe the designers (yep, those strange creatures. I'll talk about them on future texts). And why designers? Because despite a couple of methodologies and a slightly different way to perform one or other technique, the Design Research's methods and tools were (and are) quite similar to the “standard” ones.

But first things first, let's start looking at the process. As illustrate on the picture bellow, we can divide the research process into three main phases (Framing, Collecting and Proposing) and, depend on how we approach, it may lead to complete different answers.

  1. Framing: Is more than making a question, is to have the right question that will lead the whole process. Is to focus on the entire human being, or in other words, have a holistic approach to the subject. Designers may have some trouble to concentrate on a particular target (unless it will make sense on the problem framing, like children or elderly project for example) they like to think about the human side of the issue, not on a target. Designers are always looking on how to master a ‘human solution.’ If it is a good solution, the people will see the value. This broader perspective helps designers on finding the right questions, zooming in and out on the problem until they find hypotheses that can be taken into the field.
  2. Collecting: Is not about just seeking for answers, is about having insights and raising more questions, good questions. A good Design Research process knows where starts but, rarely, knows where it will leads. They have to leave their minds open. Designers like to interact with people to understand them (or try to). They like to wear the others shoes. It is how they create empathy and intimacy with others in order to find a real (meaningful) insight. And, once they got them, they will think and try a solution that will confirm or not their hypotheses. That is the way they validate it. Testing and prototyping solutions (rough). Not concepts, but solutions (because regular people do not understand concepts, sometimes, but understand a solution, especially if it’s a good one)
  3. Proposing: is not about recommendations is about to design something meaningful. The design process does not end on the insights (yeah it is much more than a post-it, or several). Design is about results and real impacts. Designers like to dirty their hands and show their dreams. Is how they sell an idea, presenting it to the world. That is why most of the Design Researchers usually deliver a future scenario that illustrates how those insights can become a reality instead of simple field report. It’s a solution empowered by knowledge, field knowledge.

As we can see (here again, this is my point of view) is that ‘Design Research’ and ‘Standard Research,’ as a process (at least the steps), are the same (almost). But the way the designers approach this process is what makes a difference. Seeing that is what led me to focus on designers and observe how they were dealing with research (and other subjects). And, since I was in charge the Whirlpool’s Latam Experience Design team, on that period, I had a lot of material to look on it.

The first thing that caught my attention was how designers have an ease to deal with uncertainty. This ability to work with duality (concrete and abstract) helps them to navigate more easily on pragmatism and subjectivity, science and art. Maybe that is why designers work pretty well with fundamentals (raw) insights. They just need a small portion of a clue to understanding a problem and with that information, imagine a answer or formulated another question.

But a good designer will never stop on that glimpse. They will take that insight, transform into a solution and present to someone. To be tested, deconstructed and reconstructed with no shame about their mislead previous assumptions because of their focus, as we said, is to understand, learn, to connect with other to find a meaningful solution. That is the real empathy. The real co-creation.

The creative design process is also a research process.

What I started to perceive is that designers use three (Intuition, Empiricism, and Audacity) specifics attitudes (not skills) that make them have this different approach. Is what make a research, become a 'Design Research'.

  1. Intuition: Is the capacity of feel and perceive the environment, the small changes, and movements of today. It's is much more than see and hear, it is related to feel. The usage of all of our senses, combined with our heart and mind. A mix about what we have learned, lived and experienced with what we are experiencing, living and learning now.
  2. Empiricism: Is not knowing anything, but testing everything. Is what gives us the freedom to have some hypotheses as possibles. Because we will test it, throw away what does not work, recreate it and so on until it starts to make sense, any sense.
  3. Audacity: Designers are trained to read the moment to think forward. Researchers are trained to read the history to understand the moment. This willing on creating the new is that allows us to leap. To get a simple insight and transform it into a vision, a future scenario.

And why I think this kind of discussions seems important now? Because we are living a complex moment and people are looking for answers more than questions. People still looking for certainty (and it's an utopian concept) and they think will find it on huge data processing and analytics only. But I doubt that. I believe that we need to sum knowledge with creativity. There will be impossible to us, as humans, to process all the information that we can access, that is why we should listen more to our intuition and test our believes in the real world. We should test our opinions, because the certainty will be over. But in order to do so, we need to develop certain attitudes (attitudes are the connection with emotion and action). We should take more risk, be more audacious. We should research less and dream more. In other words, we should research as designers.


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