I recently had an interesting discussion about the nature of design research with my coworkers. We explored the meaning of research, the motivations behind it, and the actions in response to it.
What is research?
Before talking about research in depth, let's define the boundaries of the definition of research. Are we talking about design research or scientific research? Is there a difference? And what's the difference between prior knowledge and research findings?
To make sense of the relationship between knowledge and research, I suggest following definition:
"research” [rəˈsərCH] noun
the willful practice of learning really, really fast
Both empirical knowledge and research findings are results of learning. The difference is simply that research findings are realized in a shorter, more intensive time-frame than knowledge. Which is to say that research methods are simply methods to learn quickly, effectively.
Research findings are intentional, specific, and recorded. Knowledge succumbs to bias, memory, and lack of proof.
Then comes the question, what is design research? What separates it from scientific research? What makes designers ask interviewees to act out their morning routine, instead of describe it in words? I think it's creativity.
"design research” [dɪˈzʌɪn rəˈsərCH] noun
the willful practice of learning really, really fast creatively
Here's an analogy: let's say you want to know if people like the McDonald's colors, red and yellow. The scientific approach would be to ask "do you like the McDonald's colors?", but the design approach would sound more like "color the McDonald's logo with the markers we've provided." Perhaps with this method you can gain an understanding of people that they don't have themselves, a subconscious level.
It takes a certain level of imagination to navigate the biases and lack of self awareness of test subjects. Designers happen to be good at it, which is why design research is differentiated as such.
To Justify The Subjective
Design involves wielding the senses. Designers craft experiences with small, subtle decisions and large, holistic strategies. Marks of quality are rooted in subjectivity. But that's not say design can't be measured by objective marks of quality as well. It's a ratio. Designing an experience involves a careful, unique balance of these objective and subjective marks of quality. It shows us when a sexy cantilever is welcome over a sturdier column.
Research helps justify the particular ratio chosen. The legitimacy of research provides a vocabulary to validate a designer's intuition.
To Generalize: Confirm/Deny/Explore
Often, research is necessary to understand the market, stakeholders, and the context around any given experience. Research informs our "best guess."
Although research can never provide proof that a particular set of features or any given experience will be well-received, but it can provide evidence to inspire confidence in a proposed solution or a chosen "ratio" (mentioned above).
Sometimes research isn't meant to supplement our prior knowledge, but to dismantle it. Conducting research affords us fresh perspective, by removing preconceptions and the pain points that accompany preconception.
“To understand something is not to be able to define it or describe it. Instead, taking something that we think we already know and making it unknown thrills us afresh with its reality and deepens our understanding of it” Kenya Hara in Designing Design
To Improve Research
Research also helps you learn how to research further. Much like design as a whole, research is also a creative endeavor that undergoes and benefits from iteration and refinement. With experience, we learn strategies to avoid bias and stimulate response.
Positioning research in the design process
What role, then, does research play in the whole scope of the design process? Or should I say what role does learning really fast play? Traditionally, we tend to think of research as other than design; you do research, then you do design. Perhaps this is because the design process doesn't always include learning really, really fast. For certain projects, only intuition, per se, is necessary. (Let's say intuition is knowledge you can't identify the source of)
This begs the question: how do you know when to use knowledge vs research? The combination of knowledge with research can sometimes be a conflict of interests, when the goal of the research is to un-know. So how do we know what to do? This is when the last purpose of research becomes relevant; with experience, we cultivate understanding for when to gather information vs when to use knowledge, how/what to research, and finally how to respond to research findings
That said, we often fail to acknowledge that we are still learning during/after a design comes to fruition, so why this separation of design and research? If we distance ourselves from this distinction, we can avoid the compartmentalization of research findings from design insights. By reframing research as "learning" instead of "informing" in the design process, we can employ a more mindful approach to design, acknowledging the constant opportunities to learn throughout the process, even in the refinement phases.
Ideally, research is design is research