Understanding and integrating design research into your everyday work
A little context
As a researcher by trade, educator at SVA, and community builder at 3x3, I meet many folx questioning how to do design research in ways that center people. And I want to support your journeys! So I’ve synthesized a slew of stuff scattered from Slack messages to client deliverables on what design research is and how to do it well. I hope it’s helpful to you wherever you are in your journey :)
1.What’s design research?
Design research is the practice of learning from the everyday experiences of people to directly inform and inspire the design of products, spaces, and experiences. The core belief is that by observing and engaging directly with people (a.k.a. users, customers, participants, etc.), designers can better understand and attend to people’s problems. They can also go beyond fulfilling a need to imbue dignity and delight. That said, design research is NOT market research. Panthea Lee, the founder of Reboot, gives a great breakdown of the differences between the two. The goal of market research is to generate value for the organization, while design research prioritizes bringing value to people. There’s a need for both and they’re not necessarily in contradiction. However, it can get messy (and unfair) if the same expectations and metrics of market research get placed onto design research. It’s definitely something I come up against constantly! Design research has inherent value for designers, communities, organizations, and all stakeholders in the design process. It doesn’t need to validate its worth in bigness (e.g. statistical significance). Nuance, particularities, subtleties, and all the truths that are latent or invisible matter a lot.
2. How is design research different from other kinds of research?
Design research uses qualitative methods (i.e. understanding perceptions, lived experiences, frustrations, hopes, etc.) in ways that are exploratory (not solutions-oriented) with the goal of seeking inspiration not validation. Here’s my iteration of the donut meme to help distinguish different types of research.
3. What does design research look like in real life?
People ask me how other companies actually use design research. IDEO (as extremely problematic as it is) has been a pretty influential institution to define and popularize design research as a methodology that advances design and business outcomes. Matt Cooper-Wright, IDEO Europe’s co-director, curated this list of 12 design research methods that includes my most favorite tool: analogues. An example of analogues in action is when IDEO designers observed NASCAR pit teams as a way to inspire the design of operating rooms and surgery toolkits. Although analogues can get really weird and extreme, they don’t have to take up a lot of time or money if you have resource constraints. Matt talks about how experiencing an analogue context could be as simple as talking to someone or experiencing a new place.
Several years ago, I was on a project for an Obama initiative to support STEAM and STEM teachers across the country. The organization wanted to increase member participation and collaboration as it scaled from 25 to over 300 organizations. As the design team, we really wanted to understand — what will keep members motivated and inspired to stay part of this collective as it grows? So to kick off the project, we decided to interview two serial Ironman competitors (with full-time jobs and families) about how they fit extreme training into their everyday lives and what they relied on to stay on task. Hearing from these everyday, extraordinary athletes helped us connect to the emotional aspects of commitment, like friendship, mentorship, and some spiritual aspects of personal change. These principles directly shaped the design of a dynamic system of on-ramps, power boosts, and personal bonding we created for the organization.
4. What are ways of doing design research that center equity rather than replicate existing power hierarchies?
Many of us have heard about the thing Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” From one perspective, this makes sense. Good design researchers create the conditions for people to share their lived experiences and needs, but of course, it’s not people’s jobs to come up with the exact thing that designers should make. But unfortunately, I think Ford’s adage has also been used to justify ignoring or not fully valuing the voice and agency that people deserve to have as valued partners in the design process. At its worst, I’ve seen how this attitude has led designers/researchers to misunderstand their role as extracting or even manipulating people into sharing their true needs and aspirations. To bolster our values to respect and care for people and our planet, here are a few approaches I love that go beyond standard human-centered design and design thinking approaches to explicitly center people, communities, and equity:
- Liberatory Design is an evolution of HCD that centers equity and parity between designer and designee (Tania Anaissie is a champion of this model and has a wonderful piece on reckoning with power imbalances in design thinking);
- Models of Care by KA McKercher is a toolkit for setting the conditions for genuine collaboration and co-design (their book, Beyond Sticky Notes: Co-Design for Real, is both inspiring and pragmatic).
- Social Workers Who Design, led by Rachael Dietkus, focuses on trauma-responsive design, research, strategy, and organizational cultures. She talks about what trauma-informed approaches can look like and leads trainings for anyone in the design process to adapt restorative practices that avoid harming or re-harming people and communities.
5. How can I get better at talking with people?
‘Sorry, you go first. No, you. No no no, you.’ Sometimes we talk so fast that we keep bumping into each other’s sentences. In everyday chats, we humans take turns talking for about two seconds at a time and then only wait about 200 milliseconds between turns! When you’re interviewing someone for research, try taking three full breaths before moving on to the next question or sharing your own thoughts. It might feel awkward at first, but you’ll notice how people will often take that space you gave them to articulate a new idea, remember something important, or just take a sip of water and rest. Slightly slowing down the pace of your interview can make people feel more heard and accepted, and less pressure to “perform.” This results in more authentic and meaningful conversations.
I like to use the method of “Directed Storytelling” to facilitate people organically recalling the details of an experience. You can lead with a storytelling prompt like, “Tell me about the last time you took a trip.” One researcher facilitates the chat, while another person documents the conversation. Followup questions like, “Who was there with you?” or “Tell me about some things you brought with you” help fill out the important details. Overall, the conversation should feel supportive and enjoyable for the participant, never officious, pushy, or rushed. To see directed storytelling in action, here’s a study led by MAYA Design and Carnegie Mellon on the design of a peer mentorship program for people newly diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. You can also see how they used prototyping and elements of co-design.
6. How can I overcome my own bias as a researcher?
Actually, you can’t. But you can learn to understand your own identity and positionality as a way to become more aware of your biases so as to recognize when they appear, voice them, and steer away from being shaped by them. Positionality is a fancy term that means who we are, how we see the world, and how this shapes the way we engage with people and systems. Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel takes an emancipatory approach to design thinking and believes that a creative and human-centered approach to design requires us to look within ourselves. She invites designers to investigate their own positionality to understand how aspects of identity, like gender, the languages we speak, schooling, social class, the color of our skin, and more inform how we understand problems and approach solving them. Through this increased awareness, we can identify our own blindspots and biases (again, we all have them) and ways we can make space for a plurality of perspectives and values. You can map out your positionality alone or as part of a team exercise any time using this Mural tool. As it can get both complicated and personal, sometimes it’s helpful to work in pairs with a close friend or colleague, or to take time to work on this outside of a group setting.
7. How do I prove that design research is just as important as quantitative data?
While things like purchase intent are measured as hypotheticals, observing things like how people experience a product, hearing their stories of frustrating experiences, and watching them solve a problem you’re trying to design a solution for is a snapshot into reality. Jane Fulton Suri says that designers need this type of “concrete sensory” data in particular when creating breakthrough products and experiences. In her essay, “Informing our Intuition,” she breakdowns why design research makes business sense, especially to advance innovation. She shares that traditional marketing and insights are apt at measuring the impact of incremental shifts, but design research is needed when you’re operating in the territory of greater unknowns (e.g. evolving a brand, inventing a new category, creating a hybrid digital experience, etc.). Flip to page 6 of her essay for a detailed breakdown of generative and formative types of design research.
8. Can you show me a really big way qualitative research has changed the world we live in?
When I’m thinking about how to make a radical change in a big system, I look to urban design. The people-centered design approach of Gehl Studio has transformed whole cities like Copenhagen and major streets around the world, like Times Square in Manhattan, from car-centric congestion to pedestrian oases. These sweeping makeovers are powered by people-centric, qualitative data.
In Times Square, Gehl found that while pedestrians made up 90% of the users, only 10% of the public realm was devoted to their use (90% of space was designated for cars). Before making design recommendations, Gehl has their own rigorous methodology of not only counting people, but they record about 80 sub-categories of social life (e.g. How many people are walking with strollers? How many older people look confident crossing the street? How many people are sitting on benches sharing food?). Armed with data about how people are or aren’t using public space, they propose temporary experiments to close streets to cars, add moveable furniture, and paint new crosswalks to measure again how they perform. Emboldened by the success of these prototypes, cities like New York have made these experiments permanent. Jan Gehl codifies this approach in his mantra: “First life, then spaces, then buildings.”
9. Doing design research can be intense — what keeps you inspired?
At the heart of design research is gathering inspiration from people, but sometimes we forget that we designers are people too. We need to find ways to recharge our own curiosities and passions, even when life gets wobbly. I remember in grad school learning about the Presence Project, a an initiative to encourage older people to get outside more and spend time in public spaces across Europe. I admired how the researchers assembled very personalized probe kits of cameras, postcards, and stickers for participants to share their experiences of public spaces. And I loved how one of the prototypes was to insert TVs into public benches so elders could watch shows with others and not use the excuse of staying home to catch their favorite program. I keep this book around as a reminder of the values I always want to bring to projects I work on: inclusion, connection, and play.
10. What are some design research resources on inclusion that you use?
- At 3x3, where I am the head of community, we practice community-centered design — an ongoing practice of self-reflection, co-creation, and transformation. We have a toolkit, along with workshops and more resources to support design practitioners, strategists, policymakers, and all folx seeding social transformation by bringing people together.
- I recently participated in the inaugural Design Justice Pedagogy Summit at the MIT Media Lab, where we got to apply Design Justice principles to decolonizing our syllabi, along with the way to we teach and practice. To explore how to apply these principles to your own work, I recommend starting by reading Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the World We Need by Sasha Costanza-Chock and connecting with a local Design Justice node.
- As design researchers, it’s our responsibility to ensure participants are valued, respected, and fairly compensated for their contributions. Sarah Fathallah thoroughly details compensation guidelines and why it matters here.
- This collective of designers, researchers, and scholars is building a living library of inclusive research guidelines — these are particular to doing research with people living with disabilities, but they are helpful in every scenario to make all of our practices less exclusive and more thoughtful.
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Share more of your questions & favorite resources for inclusive design research with me (please!): @adrianavyoung