# Fractal Nature of Design Research (Part 1)

Last week, I came across an article by Madhu Priyanka, where she had likened design research with fractals, remarking on the repetitive pattern of primary and secondary research we see in a Design Thinking project.

Indeed, every research project that I have worked on at TinkerLabs, has thrown the team into loops and spirals. As I sat down to reminisce on some of my on-ground experiences with research- studying internet consumption in rural Rajasthan for Tata Trusts, handwashing behaviour of young children for Lifebuoy, parenting styles and needs of young urban couples for babyOye, or financial planning in middle class families for SBI Life, I could see that we were indeed yoyoing, though not on one but multiple axes. We were going back and forth between:

1. Research in the problem space and research in the solution space

*Yes, there is research in the solution space as much as in the problem space. Testing a raw prototype with a potential user is as much a form of research as an interview or shadowing exercise. Not just to validate the solution, but to learn more about the user and the problem. Quite often, the only way to know more about the problem space is to enter the solution space and vice versa.*

2. Exploratory research and confirmatory research

*Oh I think a researcher has to be superhumanly aware about which of these two modes they are or should be in, and when and how to shift gears. While conceptually possible, I think it is a good rule of thumb not to mix the two modes.*

3. Secondary and primary research

*This is the most visible/tangible toggling a researcher does. However, I have seen most researchers to be considerably more skilled, experienced, and comfortable with one mode more than the other. Again, a superhuman level of awareness would be needed to know when to switch gears, and for the yin (ninjas of primary research) and yang (studs of secondary research) to seek help from each other as needed*

4. Qualitative and quantitative research

*Another tangible toggle, but prone to bias just as much as the toggle between primary and secondary. I have often seen fans of data looking for data, and those fond of ‘quotes’ and ‘reactions’ look exactly for that! While we can and must strive to become ambidextrous, I think it is quite pragmatic for left handers and right handers to shake hands. Yeah I needed a new analogy, after yin and yang 😉*

There may be more such axes, please jump to *the comments section if you want to suggest some. *I have listed four here, and basic mathematics tells you that with 2 values each for 4 variables, you have 2⁴=16 possibilities. I am plotting these modes of research in a table:

For a more intuitive grasp on the table, please note:

- The first two rows are dedicated to problem space, the next two to solution space
- The first two columns are dedicated to primary research, the next two to secondary
- First and third row are dedicated to qualitative research, second and fourth to quantitative
- First and third columns are dedicated to exploratory research, second and fourth to confirmatory

Before I go on to describe the fractal nature of research activity, a few fun pointers on researcher profiles based on the above table:

- A comprehensive (unicorn) researcher would be able to play well in all the 16 modes! Good luck spotting one 😉
- If you want to challenge a researcher, the trickiest modes would be number 4, 5, 12, 13. Think about it!
*Examples are welcome in the comments section* - If you want to see some sparks flying, pair two researchers up- one in love with mode 1, the other in love with mode 8.
*Can you spot more such pairs? Comments section please.*

Back to the table. In all my research projects, I have seen the team jumping back and forth between multiple of these boxes, multiple times over. You start in one box, run a brief activity in that mode, outcome of which dictates the next box you move into; outcome from the activity in the second box dictating the box you jump into next, which may be a third box or a rebound into the first. So on and so forth! The most common starting point for me has been box number 3 i.e. ‘Qualitative and exploratory secondary research in problem space’, usually followed by boxes numbered 1, 3, 2, 4, 11, 9, 6, 8, 11, 9, 11, 12, 10, 14.

There is a plenty of zig-zaging and yoyoing in the above flow. However, all this is happening in a given plane. This does not make our activity ‘fractal’. By simple definition, a form is called fractal if upon zooming into any section of the form, you see the same form repeating endlessly.

*While there are hundreds of more accurate geometric representations of fractals, I found this one rather simple and funny*

And that is exactly what happens to the plotline of your movement across this table. Outcome of your research activity in one box helps you identify a sub-theme and zoom in on it. As soon as you start exploring that sub-theme, the same table of possible research modes emerges for your research within that sub-theme! Dive in further and you find yourself in yet another similar table. Zoom out, and you are back in a similar table. You get the hang.

Some more mathematics. If I do one level of zooming in, you can see that a 16-compartment table can emerge for each of the 16 compartments in the starting table. Yeah? Which means, 16X16=256 possible pairs of research modes. Add a couple of levels of zooming in, and the number can consume a research team for a lifetime! In my next article, I have shared a real life example- a sample ‘fractal’ flow of research activity based on a simple relatable example from a live voluntary project that Aloke, Devanshi and I are working on.

We are studying the dynamics of Covid-19’s spread in densely populated urban areas- chawls and slums of Mumbai. In typical Design Thinking ethos, we have framed our challenge as:

“How might we empower slum and chawl dwellers to prevent/minimise the spread of coronavirus in their localities?”

We are merely ten days into our research, and we have already jumped in and out of six of the sixteen boxes in the table. In the next part of this article, I have shared the flow of our research so far with brief descriptions of activity and outcome in each box, and how that directed us to the next box. Till then, please share your experiences, comments, or questions on ‘research being fractal in structure’!