Let’s Stop Doing Research*
And get smarter about design.
There is a lot of bad design in the world. This is so interesting to me. We have a huge amount of collective knowledge about design and human behavior. So, why do we continue to produce objects and systems that clearly fail to meet a real need, fail to serve business goals, or just don’t work. Plainly said, why do smart people still make things that suck?
It’s easy to blame the designers involved for a lack of craft. However, most designers work within the context of an organization with a collective set of not completely rational and harmonious priorities. Even sole practitioners are working for someone. Too often competent designers are subject to a broken process for making decisions. The standard for success may be the wrong standard. There are too many competing interests. Ego or anxiety rule the day. The conditions for good design—a clear goal, the right resources, and necessary information—are not present. This is all complicated and less fun to talk about than just ripping apart the end-product or responding with a design of your own better mousetrap.
Good decisions require good information
Great design changes the world by first fitting into the world as it exists. We had pockets before we had iPhones, but no place to fit a Segway. If you understand why things are as they are, you’ll appreciate what a slog it is to achieve lasting change where it matters. And you’ll be prepared.
So along comes research—but who wants to waste time doing research? We want to design! Research can be a hard sell, even to those who claim to value design. It often sounds like time and money sunk into mucking about in the messy present when we could be busy creating the perfect future.
And the way a lot of research goes only serves to validate this prejudice.
The problem with research
The goal of design research is not to do research for it’s own sake. The point is to make sure everyone working towards the goal is benefitting from a collective understanding of the problem. It doesn’t matter how much research you do if the people who have acquired the most knowledge write a report and move on.
Assigning the research to researchers, even the most rigorous, is not enough. The research needs to answer the questions design needs answered most. And the resulting knowledge needs to suffuse the design team.
And product teams can be rife with disagreement and confusion about what research is and means. When I say “research” some people hear “surveys” or “focus groups” or “testing”. Sure some of those are research, but that doesn’t mean they are all-occasion or that research can reduce to any one of those. Doing the wrong research can be worse than doing none. Having a check-box approach is missing the point.
So, we need a better word, one less ambiguous, and that doesn’t taste like homework. Beyond the word, we need a completely different culture of using inquiry to inform design. Continuous curiosity and the will to be proven wrong as fast as possible are just part of the job.
We’re past user-centered design
It’s essential to design with the needs of the ultimate users in mind, but the practice of user-centered design can be too closely aligned with the maligned waterfall process. And understanding the system from the user’s perspective is simply not enough. We can’t neglect the larger context.
What about data-driven design?
The notion of “data-driven design” reinforces the false belief that quantitative data (measurements) are inherently superior to qualitative (descriptions), that the data will tell you what to do. But they aren’t and won’t. No matter how good your data, you will need to ask the right questions, interpret the answers, and determine the implications for what you’re designing. As long as humans are involved, data-driven design is still just human bias-driven design (like all design, really) with a name that inspires false confidence.
So, then genius design, right?
I get asked about the role of intuition in design every single time I give a talk about research—as though gathering information threatens to suck all of the joy and creativity out of the process. I understand the concern. Design is not a math problem where you plug variables into a formula to derive a solution. Fear not. Information and intuition are compatible.
Intuition is one of two things. What we call intuition is either a judgment based on experience, which is a form of research, or it’s confirmation bias. Your intuition tells you that what you want to be true is true.
A great designer learns from experience and avoids relying on assumptions. A great designer looks at the real world and makes connections others don’t see. A great designer has insights about the world allowing them to change the world by creating a new thing the world accepts and adopts. A great designer collaborates with others. A less great designer places personal expression on a pedestal.
So, “design thinking” doesn’t solve this. Designers often have useful approaches, but we don’t have special cognitive powers.
We need evidence-based design
As long as we continue to call out research as a separate activity apart from design we will be fighting for the inclusion of inquiry into the process, and we will be battling misconceptions.
We need evidence-based design. Because what we are doing first and foremost is designing. It doesn’t matter how much research we do, or what method we use. There is no one right answer. It matters that we have sufficient evidence to support our choices and decisions, however we get that evidence.
It’s much harder to argue against evidence-based design. What’s the alternative? Guessing? Designing with no evidence to support your decisions? Now, that’s silly.
Of course we will often have to do some sort of research to gather the evidence, but those activities are as integral to the design process as sketching or writing. We know we have done them well to the extent they made the design stronger and give us confidence in our decisions.
What design decisions are we making? What evidence do we need to support those decisions? Where will we find that evidence? If we ask these questions, we will never have to ask whether we have to do research again.
Note: Evidence-based design is a term that does currently exist in healthcare environments. We need to adopt and broaden the definition to encompass all design, interactive design in particular. It’s our best hope for a rational, humanist approach to problem solving.