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.

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  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