All Design Begins with Research

Our latest tussle with design theory had us examine the role of research in design. If we break up the design process into component parts, research sits at the very beginning, and thus influences everything that comes after.

As designers, we will often be challenged to explain how our design process works and why it has value. At a glance, observing the behavior of a small group of individuals does not seem like like a rigorous approach that could lead to valuable design solutions. It is our job to understand and communicate how the design process is different from market research and the scientific method, while also providing insights those two approaches cannot reach.

Our class read and discussed articles from the eight authors below, and each author posited a view on how designers should think about research in design.

Paul Dourish
– Asserts a conceptual theory for designers
– Context is dynamic and complex
– Designs for designers
– Can test if a technology is responsive to chaining social settings

Chris Le Dantec
– Design needs ambiguity and interpretation
– Designs with people using Participatory Design
– Subjective results due to designer’s insights and interpretation

William Gaver
– Focuses on designs that evoke pleasure
– Design research is about inspiration for the designer
– Uses Cultural Probes
– Subjective results due to designer’s interpretation

Jodi Forlizzi
– Creates a formalized research framework for designers to follow
– Subjective results as designer’s decide which methods to use

Liz Sanders
– Values co-creation in social impact projects
– Social design should include all stakeholders
– Subjective results are dependent on people’s needs and inspiration

Jane Suri
– Advocates for a variety of research approaches to understand users
– Approaches focus on the designer’s experience

Don Norman
– Technology drives innovation
– The role of design research is o make incremental adjustments
– Designers respond to user demand
– Objective results as design products are either adopted or, otherwise, fail

Jon Kolko
– The role of design research is to assist the designer
– Design for people using mainly observational methods
– Subjective results rely on designer’s inspiration

Phew! – That was a lot to get through! The reading was heavy at times, but very rewarding.

We were asked to synthesize the authors’ views and represent them in a diagram with one axis labeled “Design for / Design with” and the other axis labeled any way we choose. I labeled my y axis with Objective Results and Subjective Results. You can see how I plotted each author below:

Author views on how they work with people in research and the results they can expect.
Author views on how they work with people in research and the results they can expect.


As I examined my placement for each author, I started to think about what their quadrant represented.

In the first quadrant, Norman and Dourish represent the role of designer as a Genius-Creator – someone who builds things that are objectively useful to people.

The second quadrant is empty, but would represent the designer as an Educator – someone who teaches the “right” way to design for particular results.

The third quadrant holds Forlizzi, Kolko, and Suri, who represent the role fo the designer as an Autocrat – someone who knows what’s best for the people.

And finally, the fourth quadrant houses Gaver, Le Dantec, and Sanders, who view the role fo the designer as a facilitator – someone who guides the process of, more or less, co-creation.

My main takeaway from this section of readings is an “ah-hah” moment when I realized that Kolko had synthesized all of the other authors’ views, neatly explaining that the value of design research is that it leads to unique insights about people. While the engineer and the marketer bring predictions about how people might behave, the designer can give insight into why people interact as they do.