Simply, design research is research that informs the design process. In my opinion, it is an essential part of any design process, whether you are designing apps or apparel. Research contributes to all phases of designing from Inspiration to Ideation to Implementation (IDEO 2019), supporting both convergent and divergent thinking (see: the Double Diamond* above). In the context of human-centred design, research means understanding the humans who you are designing for and involving them in every stage of the design process. This ensures that you better meet your customer’s (user’s, citizen’s, employee’s) needs, to create products and services with genuine value.
Design research is an essential part of any design process, whether you are designing apps or apparel.
Design research is a term that acquires different meaning depending on its context. Historically, Design Research referred to the study of designers, their practices and mindsets. This is now often, and perhaps more elegantly, called Design Studies. For a more detailed analysis of types of research and how they relate to design, this article by Coffee and Junk is quite a good start. I have a passion for design studies and design philosophy, both of which have profoundly changed my worldview, so I will be drawing on some of the key thinkers in these spaces, in upcoming posts. This articles series, just like my career, aims to hover in the liminal (and sometimes fraught) space between design theory and practice.
There are already many existing and comprehensive articles (and listicles! — who knew?) out there about design research. For encyclopaedic knowledge, IBM has a stylish design research website, which explains all-things-research, in a way that I could never hope to accomplish here. BBC GEL’s cheesy but informative video, IDEO’s “day in the life of” and Airbnb’s research blog are all good references for research beginners. I will share some more essential how-tos and what-not-to-dos (there are many) in future articles and cover some of the joys and challenges of doing design research in real life (#IRL).
Research is essential to the ethics and efficacy of good design for many reasons. It forms a strong case for evidence-based design, creating more robust outcomes, as “good decisions require good information” (Hall 2016). Qualitative data in particular, allows us to understand beyond the what and the how, to why people are the way they are (Chipchase 2018). This is key to unlocking behaviours (from users to systems); understanding and analysing culture; and setting context and focus in problem definition (Freach 2011). Research also works to decentralise the designer (and our egos) from the thing (object, product, service, system) we are designing and reinforces the simple yet poignant UX maxim: you are not your user (Bhowmick 2017).
Most designers work within the context of an organization [sic] with a collective set of not completely rational and harmonious priorities… too often competent designers are subject to a broken process for making decisions.
— Erika Hall 2016
But it must be good research. Anything to avoid what my friend Ash Alluri and his TACSI colleagues call “the insights bulge.” Where research is commissioned and insights generated, only for them to sit in a pretty report that never gets used again. This is why research doyenne, Leisa Reichelt, suggests that design researchers spend 70% of their time disseminating the findings of their research, and 30% on the research itself. That dissemination may include: research ‘playbacks’; making videos or audio soundbites; writing blog posts; doing presentations and putting vertical campfires up on walls. Her tips on what makes insights actionable, namely, answering these two fundamental questions: what is happening? and why is it happening?, are a good place to start. She also has an excellent reading list, if you are interested in keeping abreast of the latest thinking in this space.
For my part, design research is important because it is one of the few ways in which we can re-humanise our services, organisations and social systems. This is especially critical in a neo-liberalised society where humans, and their inherent inefficiencies, are being increasingly outmoded. This is not only about the “voice of the customer”, it is about valuing human (and non-human**) needs first and repositioning them, above and beyond the bottom line.
We can do this by telling the right stories. This reminds me of a Brainpickings article that I read years ago, about wisdom in the age of information. In this animated essay, Maria Popova muses on the ways in which information accumulates and is interpreted into knowledge, to become a revelation of truth about the world. How we apply that knowledge, to understand not only how the world works, but how it should work, she calls wisdom. This, she believes, is a moral imperative for storytellers.
More and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it
— Maria Popova 2014
I also think this is vital for designers. The way in which we are invited into other people’s lives to hear their stories, their heartaches, fears and desires, and to retell this back to them — to have them feel heard through the things we design — this is the power of design research. It is a responsibility we need to take seriously and if approached with dedication and humility, it will always have value.
* The Double Diamond from the UK Design Council, is a useful diagram to explain similarities in the creative process across different design disciplines. Now often overused as “Design Thinking” has infiltrated more and more non-design contexts, the Double Diamond has been misrepresented as a deliverable in and of itself. Where it does come into its own, is to demonstrate that many business decisions start with the solution before understanding the problem. Design research provides an excellent opportunity to properly explore the neglected problem space (in reductive terms, the first diamond). In saying that, the diametric of “problem and solution”, is far too simplistic for addressing larger scale, wicked problems and systems level change.
** I am using “non-human” here in reference to our increasingly fragile natural systems. This term comes from Actor-Network Theory (ANT), in which social relations are understood as a gathering of human and non-human things (actors within a network), around certain matters of concern. For an introduction to Bruno Latour and Science and Technology Studies (STS), I would suggest reading this NY Times article. A philosophical discussion on design and ANT will have to wait for another time — should anyone actually be interested!
Sasha Abram is design lead at Welcome to Country, an Indigenous-led not-for-profit focussed on tourism and economic development. She is a passionate educator and has taught design at Undergraduate and Masters level at UTS and UNSWAD. She has a Masters in sustainability, strategy and enterprise (UTS) and a Masters (research), in service design and Aboriginal communities (UTS).
All opinions written here are entirely her own.