The Methods of Design Research & The Power It Can Wield

The concept of design research is an interesting one for me. Research conjures up thoughts of science, and numbers, and p-values. It makes me think of a hypothesis and of measuring results. But, what I’m beginning to come to terms with is that design research isn’t traditional research at all.

Research in the context of design might be better characterized as a search for inspiration. There is no statistical significance but rather intentional bias. You aren’t trying to understand what is happening, you are trying to understand what could be. Design research, in my view, is about gathering as much information as you want, however you want, and using all of those inputs to spark something new.

Beyond the question of how to conduct this research, another interesting question is how powerful can it be? By understanding people and their behaviors, are designers able to identify and solve really big, complex, wicked problems? Are we able to truly innovate? Or, is design research best for identifying opportunities for incremental improvement?

For this project, I considered first, how 8 authors believe a designer should be going about understanding the behaviors of others. Is it by observing from afar? Is it by asking someone? Is it by putting oneself in the position of another and trying to emulate the same experience? This is charted on an x axis where the left is “designing for” a user and the right is “designing with” a user.

Then, I’ve added a y axis where I will plot how powerful each designer believes design research can be in solving these messy, wicked problems.

lauren sands image


  1. Donald Norman – In the context of the other 7 authors, Norman’s opinion is extremely thought provoking. He characterizes design research a luxury without much functional return. It is technology, he argues, and the way people organically adopt it that leads to innovative breakthroughs.
  2. Jodi Forlizzi – Her work (not too dissimilar from Norman’s opinion) is product first.  She seeks to understand the “complex context” between a product, a user, and the surrounding society by distant observation. Once the context is better understood, small adjustments can be made to the product.
  3. Fulton Suri – Suri asserts that there can be significant power in design research. A lot of that research is conducted by designers physically emulating the role that a user would typically take. By doing this, she sees the potential for sustainable innovation.
  4. William Gaver – He remains removed from his research subjects, giving them only Probes with which to capture their experiences. From there, he and his team are on their own, coming up with brand new ideas and using the results of their research only to job their own creative juices. While not explicit, he seems to suggest there are no limitations to the potentials of this work.
  5. Christopher A. Le Dantec – He clearly outlines that he believes design research should be approached “not as design for … but as design with, recognizing [users] as socially legitimate and masters of their own choices.” He takes on big and complicated challenges, like homelessness, and seeks to address related challenges in tandem with the end user.
  6. Paul Dourish – Admittedly, Dourish was difficult to place on my x and y axis because he writes in more theoretical terms, and less about the application of design research. However, he introduces a very nuanced and powerful way of thinking about context and its importance in design research. Based on his “notion of context in ubiquitous computing” I would argue that he sees a lot of power in the ability to deeply understand a user’s behavior and the way that behavior impacts a surrounding world. If he were to engage in design research, I image he would do so hand in hand with the users.
  7. John Kolko – Kolko’s design research methods focus only on what can be gleaned directly from a user. No statistics, science, no numbers will do. He believes that designer’s ethnographic methods of design research can lead to finding root problems. Only then, can “engineering, supply-chain management” and other traditional business functions be added in to achieve real innovation.
  8. Liz Sanders – In her approach to design research. She’s focused on “co-creation” and sees the designer as a facilitator who empowers the user to create for themselves. Sanders’ sees no limitation to what this can accomplish, either in an organization or in the world at large.

lauren v2 theory

Perspectives to Consider When Building the Case for a Code of Ethics in Design

Today, most professions have a guiding code of ethics.  Some of the quickest to come to mind for you may be law or medicine, but even human relations, realty, and nonprofit fundraising have a standard code that has been agreed to and is easy to reference.

Designers are in the middle of a movement to better understand the role of ethics in our own profession. While the act of designing has been around (arguably) since the beginning of time, its sophistication and broad impact has begun to grow exponentially. This growth is due in large part to the explosion of computers and, therefore, information.  Humans are looking for ways to make sense of everything, and designers are here to help.

But, are we really helping? And, who are we helping?  Designers use our understanding of human psychology to influence and persuade the actions of a user. Part of the formula, however, comes from the fact that users have absolutely no idea it’s happening.

Lawyers abide by a code of ethics because it is assumed that clients may not be as sophisticated as their lawyer. The code is intended to protect that client from potentially devious actions of the lawyer. Put even more simply, it prevents lawyers from maximizing their profits at the expense of the client.

It is for that same reason that I believe we should all be advocating for a formal code of ethics in design–to prevent designers from maximizing their profits at the expense of the user.

In the image below, I’ve ranked five thought leaders based on how important I believe their perspectives are when building a case for the need of a code of ethics in design. Bernays is ranked most important, because as a result of his work, our world has seen how dangerous unbridled freedom of persuasion can be. We now know that Hitler’s minister of propaganda used Bernay’s exact playbook when building affinity for the Third Reich. An individual using such powerful tools should be bound by a code of ethics.  Vitta is next, because he teaches us that design is pervasive and has much more influence than was once thought. This influence needs to be handled responsibly.  Papanek explains that designers have the power to solve problems, and it is our responsibility to use these skills to address “the true needs of men” instead of wasting them.  Postman describes a world where people are inundated and overwhelmed by information.  He explains that information alone solves no problems–if anything it causes more.  The tools of a designer can help humans make sense of it all.  Dewey sees everyone as a designer, because every interaction any human ever has contributes to their overall experience. Dewey is ranked as least important when building the case for a code of ethics in design, because if everyone designs, regardless of their formal profession, a code may not have a strong impact.

A formalized code of ethics would give designers much needed guidance on how to be responsible, and how to treat users with respect and dignity.


Reflections on AC4D Orientation 2019

Orientation week at Austin Center for Design is coming to a close.  In a very short period of time, our class of twelve was introduced to a wide variety of topics and activities.

At it’s core, design strategy is about experience, emotions, and stories. Humans are inherently emotional and irrational, and I found it both interesting and refreshing that design not only allows for that, but embraces and builds for it. I was also excited to learn what a creative process design strategy can be. It’s iterative and offers a lot of freedom. There’s ambiguity and there’s space to explore.

Our first project was a sprint to speak with food truck owners and employees, synthesize what we learned, and make inference which led to ideas. Generating hundreds of fresh ideas was a fun but taxing activity. It felt like flexing a muscle that I hadn’t used in a very long time.

Our instructor reiterated several times that it was important to trust the process. It was tempting to jump ahead and think about potential solutions while still gathering information. But, the fast-pace of this first assignment was a great way to test and see the value of that advice. Ultimately, many ideas and inferences came to our group while staring at our sticky notes that we never would have thought of two steps earlier.

The initial overview of Design Strategy has me looking more critically at the narratives being communicated to us every day: the places we live, the clothes we buy, the cars we drive, but also the way we build relationships, spend our time, and structure our lives. How much of this is being influenced by a thoughtfully crafted external force? What are the implications? Is that good… is it bad? How do we know?

I do know that I’m excited for these next 8 months and excited to dive right in.