Design Research: It’s Research But It’s Not Science

Design Research Presentation

Everyone and their mothers have been moving to Austin. Sometimes it’s for a job, sometimes it’s because they hear it’s a cool and weird oasis city. After living here for a while their friends from whatever city they came from ask them, “what’s so special about Austin? How does it move you, and why should I move there?” The answer totally depends on the person. It’s subjective.

Everyone in the innovation industry is moving towards design thinking and with that comes design research as a technique and methodology for collecting qualitative data. When a traditional boardroom client encounters a design researcher for the first time they will ask, “what’s so special about design research? How does it move you, and how does it move my business?”

The answer is hopefully personalized to each designer’s own subjective, creative process and how they interpret design research. No matter what, clients are taking a leap into newness (which is what defines innovation).

It’s tempting to formulate structures and frameworks to give the peculiar practice a backbone of intellect and explicit wisdom. But I would suggest that there is danger in overdeveloping the methods. It could lead to the limiting stiffness that the hard sciences struggle with. For design thinking to be relevant in innovation, it needs to have the flexibility and agility to morph and improve itself outside of strict frameworks. This is where design research differs from scientific research.


If There’s One Thing I Want You To Take Away From This, It’s This…

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this blog post, it’s that there’s one very simple way to frame a powerful presentation. You just tell the audience at face value what they should care to remember, and then at the end of the presentation you remind them of what they just learned and why it’s valuable to them.

When I listen to some of the most articulate TED Talks my immediate wow reaction is to how captivating the presenter’s storytelling is. Yet at no point do I lose view of the simplicity of the story arc or the intended narrative. No matter how deep the speaker delves, I don’t get lost in the details and information.

My biggest fear as a presenter has always been failing to be evocative and failing to rally the audience to care about something that I care to speak about. I often struggle because I sacrifice essential information that I think might bore the audience. As an audience member I fear the loss of 15 good minutes I spent listening to a poor presentation, and the shame that someone—someone who clearly is passionate about something enough to share it with a public—has failed to convince me that I should share a mutual interest with them.

I don’t have a particularly good memory for numbers. Sometimes I can listen to an utterance of statistics and it will have a lasting impact of about 5 minutes. But you will never catch me quoting statistics at a dinner table. My take away is always a concept. The best presenters tell you before anything else exactly what the rest of their presentation will be about: The one concept, the one they want you to remember at the dinner table in 5 months—notably longer than 5 minutes. Then the speaker tells you a bunch of information. And then they frame it in the conclusion. They remind you of the original focus statement, and in doing so, help you internalize and contextualize everything you just learned from them.

If there’s one thing I want you to remember from this blog post, it’s that we, as presenters, have to remind ourselves that our audience members aren’t the ones that are intimate with the material we are presenting. We are. And if we want other people to latch onto the stories we are telling we have to brief them and debrief them, all in the short span of a presentation 10-15 minute presentation.


Week 2: Redefining Someone Else’s Problem

My team and I are only in the second week of an eight-week project with We Are Blood; in the thick of participant interviews and site visits. Our research plan has changed dozens of times. At one point we were defining up to six different types of participants, each with distinct interview questions and visual exercises. It was a bloody mess. What could we be doing to mitigate the division of our focus statement into these isolating variations? How can we synchronize the many players on both ends of the blood bank’s service?

Looking at our own behaviors as designers crafting a research plan, perhaps we took the stakeholders’ suggestions too literally.

When the client you work for has a strong sense of direction and an idea of what they want to discover about their own organization it is easy to regurgitate their words as a research plan. It smooths the stress of having to prove to the stakeholder and yourself that the direction you are taking the project is a worthwhile one.

But when we skipped that step, we skipped the opportunity to redefine the pain point of our client. They are familiar with their issues securing repeat blood donors out of a young generation of Central Texans. Chances are that they’ve thought a lot about how to resolve that issue. That problem persists. But have they thought about how to ask the question differently? Have they thought about asking foundational questions about why people do humanitarian deeds? Instead of asking, how do we get young Texans at We Are Blood, we could ask, why do young Texans do what they do? What moves them to do something out of the ordinary?

I think the ultimate achievement for a non-profit would be for the community to support your cause with no coaxing or coercing, just plain and simple mutual interest in doing good. Reaching that level of sustainability must be a goal for all non-profits of all different shapes and sizes.

All of a sudden we’ve put the user at the center of the universe, we’ve given them the agency in future service design, and we are designing “with” not “for.” At the same time we’ve created a scenario to ask interview questions differently. The CEO of the company could be asked the same questions as the community engagement team, the supervisors, the operations managers, and the phlebotomists.

I feel we have much better footing and confidence to get better data from our interviews while asking a variety of people the same questions. We are no longer manicuring questions to fish for answers we are hoping for.


Ethics Diagram: Rating Authors of Theory

Assignment #1 Diagram

Rating authors and thought leaders on a scale from least important to most important is a tough request. But reframing and asking which of their ethics is most important to me makes the exercise a little more approachable. I created a diagram that has two parts. On the bottom are player cards that label the authors based on their position in my rating, communicating their perspective on the role of the designer, why I value that perspective, and a quote from the reading that exemplifies my choice.


When I went to position the authors along a graph I wasn’t sure why I was leaning towards one or the other. It is very difficult to disregard my emotional responses to their writing styles, expository or persuasive. I did my best to avoid dwelling too much on the history of when these authors were actively publishing—for example Bernays wrote about ‘propaganda’ at a time when it didn’t have the same connotation that it does now. But then again some of the latter authors—Postman and Vitta—are writing about topics that didn’t exist in the discourse of early 20th century debate.

I decided to focus on my affinity for the ethics that emphasize the demand for design to be malleable, cyclical, user-empowering, inclusive, and humbling. Bernays—although deceptively inclusive—and Vitta do not give agency to users as integral and equal parts of the interactions that make a product or a service. When I read these authors users feel like a flock of sheep. Dewey and Postman vouch for a human-centered design that is interactive and non-discriminatory.

Design is a cycle, and Vitta does good to bring light to this despite his cynicism. When designers partake in the massification of consumer culture, the chain does not end with their invention in the hands of a user. If the designer is not considerate and responsible in their innovations, the uselessness of their products will come back to bite them in the behind. The product doesn’t end with the consumer. The consumers, along with their belongings, fuse a bridge back to the originator—the designer.

Ethically, it is the designers that must be held accountable to the power of design. When we were discussing the readings in class several people said the oft repeated quote, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I don’t disagree with that. But when the imagery in my mind went to Superman I felt hesitant. So I had to make an additive statement that clears up my frustration with that saying:

Design should be powerful.

Designers should be humble.

I believe designers have some of the tools to be the most influential cultural and societal influencers. But we owe it to design and to the active agency and participation of users to achieve great success in healing and developing.

Spikes among Elks: Zev’s First Week at AC4D

“We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”

–  John Dewey, The Need for a Theory of Experience


All sixteen of us students in the incoming class of 2019 had heaps of concerns coming into orientation and our first week of coursework. Two weeks in, I wouldn’t say there are any less concerns, just different flavors of concern. We’ve all stepped into a mental fit of uncertainty that we must grow accustomed to. We can all see ourselves pulling toffee between our own personal goals and the collective trust and equilibrium we are struggling to embrace.

Whether we realize it or not, it is the intentionally suffocating educational experiences we’ve been subjected to this last fortnight that John Dewey is talking about. How? We are getting so drenched in responsibility at every moment that we have not one second to spend worrying about weighing the future value of what we are doing at the present. These ever-present demands force us into a state of ever-presence. Accept it or leave it.   

The somewhat scarring experience of our first day when we were told that in 48 hours we needed to enlist a local humanitarian company to pay us $1,000 by conducting qualitative research for their organization left most of us a bit shaken. This was followed by the absolute destruction of our already-withering egos during the subsequent presentations of our research plans in front of Jon and Matt (our instructors for design research and synthesis).

On more than one occasion when approaching a business owner I was told that, “you don’t just walk into an office on a Tuesday in August unsolicited. That’s not how it works.” Believe me, I know. And so do the people who gave us the assignments. Regardless, you can guarantee that I began to seep of self-doubt rather than the confidence and optimism I went in with. Inadequacy spread through me like a virus. Why would our instructors do this to us?

“Wholly independent of desire or intent every experience lives on in further experiences. Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences… progressive education is a matter of planless improvisation… [and] progressive schools cannot rely upon established traditions and institutional habits, they must either proceed more or less haphazardly or be directed by ideas which, when they are made articulate and coherent, form a philosophy of education.”

– John Dewey

Traditional education breeds a race of passive students. Students consume their training and nothing more. No doubt, Jon and Matt assigned this project to us because they demand that we exercise our own agency to perform improvisationally and autonomously in the moment. They are demonstrating that at the moment we are but spikes, and a spike can’t prepare itself to be an elk any faster just because it wishes to be wise and have a full set of antlers. What we can’t yet see is how this takes shape in the subsequent experiences that Dewey writes about. It’s only when we put our faith into our progressive instruction and unlock our cognisance of the deliberate process that we can begin to allow ourselves to learn.  

“The illustration drawn from the need for regulation of the objective conditions of a baby’s development indicates, first, that the parent has responsibility for arranging the conditions under which an infant’s experience of food, sleep, etc., occurs, and, secondly, that the responsibility is fulfilled by utilizing the funded experience of the past, as this is represented, say, by the advice of competent physicians and others who have made a special study of normal physical growth. Does it limit the freedom of the mother when she uses the body of knowledge thus provided to regulate the objective conditions of nourishment and sleep? Or does the enlargement of her intelligence in fulfilling her parental function widen her freedom? Doubtless if a fetish were made of the advice and directions so that they came to be inflexible dictates to be followed under every possible condition, then restriction of freedom of both parent and child would occur. But this restriction would also be a limitation of the intelligence that is exercised in personal judgment. In what respect does regulation of objective conditions limit the freedom of the baby?”

-John Dewey


To paraphrase Dewey, if a mother puts her full trust in her home economics textbook teaching of motherhood 101, then her interactions with her child won’t allow her to become a better and more free mother to that child. And when she has her next child, she won’t recognize that the second child has unique needs to the first. I’m not calling Jon and Matt mothers of myself and 15 other sibling students. But when you start using the verbiage of a good mother— one that rears and one that fosters—you start to see parallels with their techniques and the most basic interaction fundamental to human growth: A mother and her child. Being a child all over again is scary.

Reflecting on the horror of our first assignment to harass local businesses with unsolicited design value pitches I remember as a child the turmoil of rapid swings between the frustration of inadequacy and extreme self-confidence. And looking back, I reckon the bulk of my personal growth came from improvisational experiences not confined to the classroom.

Returning to our original list of concerns as a class, we wanted to know things like when we would need to learn Adobe Illustrator or if Illustrator is a better software than Sketch. We wanted to know if we would be expected to be expert drawers in the near future. The obvious and deeply unsatisfying answer—it depends. It depends on how you arm yourself and discover your own personal creative process, interactively, improvisationally, progressively, and un-certainly.


The root internal worry in my head entering AC4D was, how will AC4D shape me?

My new worry—how am I allowing myself to be shaped by AC4D?

Between Two Fake Plants

Sometimes this orientation week felt like a reality TV show mixed with Kool-Aid culthood, so I captured a few friends in the confessional. I wonder what this hectic work/live space is going to look like (and smell like) this next year 😉






Yours truly…