Design Research: Focus, Context, and Partnership

We’re starting to learn about design research in class, and I spent yesterday’s class teaching about the three core pillars of contextual and behavioral research: focus, context, and partnership.

Focus describes the goal trajectory of your research – the container you put on your frame of reference in order to drive participant selection and identify where to conduct your research. It reveals data, but it also conceals, because you’ll be tempted to only pick up signals related to your focus. A good focus helps steer context selection.

Context describes the interrelated conditions in which work and play are done – the environment, social setting, and culture. Arguably, it’s one of the most important parts of design research, because getting into context allows you to witness real behavior rather than gather summary data. If you spend time at a homeless shelter, you are in context; if you bring homeless people to your design studio, you’ve sterilized the research. This means you won’t encounter the societal fabric in which your participants’ wants and needs occur. You won’t meet their friends or their supporters, and you won’t see how the policies of the shelter work for or against them. You won’t see the community, or the noise, or the serendipitous encounters. Getting into context is harder than bringing someone to you, and it gets particularly difficult (both logistically and ethically) in settings with at-risk populations or dangerous environments. Perhaps that difficulty signals something of the importance of the task.

Finally, partnership describes the relationship you try to forge with your participants, and the goal is a specific form of partnership: a master/apprentice relationship, where you are the apprentice. You are there to learn, and the person you are conducting research with is the teacher. In a typical art studio, an apprentice would work for many months to understand the craft of the master. They would ask questions, but mostly, they would observe. And they would try things, slowly building up both confidence and skill. The same are true in design research. This is a long process, driven by small amounts of behavioral questions, and complete with hands-on experience.

There’s nothing easy about design research. It’s socially awkward for most people, logistically difficult, time consuming, and – in many humanitarian contexts – emotionally draining. But it’s fundamental to pursuing understanding and empathy.