The Role of Design Research

What role does research play in the design process? Over the last week and a half, we’ve been digesting the writings of 8 authors that have contributed to the discussions surrounding design research, innovation, context, and value. While reading these texts, I’ve been forming an opinion about where these authors would fall on a spectrum between ‘designing for’ and designing with.’ This turned out to be more easily said than done, simply because the spectrum doesn’t address the question of ‘designing for’ or ‘designing with’ whom. Is the focus on designing for/with a person, a user, people, or even other designers? Because each option yields significantly different results. Ultimately I chose to focus on people and how they engage with designers during the design process.

Personally, I identify most with the writings of Jon Kolko, Jodi Forlizzi, Liz Sanders, Jane Fulton Suri, and to a degree, Don Norman. If the design process is one of problem-solving, surely there must be a section of that process that focuses on identifying a problem. I believe design research to be that section: a method of finding a problem, or problems, worth solving. It should acknowledge context that, in an experiential sense, cannot be separated from activity. It should be empathetic, human-centric, and subjective. Designers can get more out of the research phase if they involve others with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. When applied to finding incremental enhancements, it is a very powerful tool.

To illustrate my views, I’ve created a Cartesian plane with ‘designing for people’ and ‘designing with people’ on the x-axis and an analogy on the y-axis. This analogy draws on my time spent producing music. On one extreme is Pop, which is formulaic, often unoriginal, structured, and doesn’t push the boundaries of music. On the other side of the spectrum is Acid Jazz, which does push the boundaries of music, can be unstructured and chaotic, and experiments for the sake of experimentation. Both symbolize an approach to design research. Be it by-the-book as with Chris Le Dantec’s well-structured methodology or like Bill Gaver’s experimental style of research, which seeks to deliberately confuse participants, design research comes in many forms and flavors. Thanks to people like Jodi Forlizzi, designers are creating theories and frameworks to help other designers pick methods that lead to valuable observations. However, Forlizzi argues, and I tend to agree, that the true value is not in the observations themselves but in the quality of interpretation and synthesis that is applied to those observations.

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Rather than go through and justify each authors location, I’m going to stick with the analogy and talk about the four quadrants of the chart.

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In the top right are the ravers. These are people who like to experiment but also have a pulse on the shared experience among everyone around them. In the bottom right is a theater concert. There is still a desire for a shared experience but it’s organized – people have tickets for a specific seat, there’s a defined start and finish, etc… In the bottom left, which I don’t believe any of the authors fall into, is a marching band. Music is written for them, everyone plays their individual part, and any deviation from the norm is highly frowned upon. This quadrant, for example, would house someone who uses a prescribed methodology to create an app for homeless people that the population neither wants nor needs. Finally, in the top right are dueling pianos. The structure is loose and the performers can improvise, but the experience lives for individuals – who often request specific songs.