Disillusioned Design Researcher

I started a job at a strategic research and consulting firm about six months ago, and have to say I’m feeling a bit disillusioned… As much creative thinking that actually goes on here, our work really is confined within the boundaries of a certain mindset and is driven completely by profit. I guess, I really find it hard to call this innovation. Any thoughts on how design research can play out in a more honest and informative manner? Is this even possible outside of the academic arena?

Are you willing to work for free? If not, who’s going to pay you and why?

I wouldn’t say that design research for profit is dishonest! Capitalism is just another form of darwinism–The projects that deserve design research do so because they deserve to live (for financial reasons.)

That said, I agree that some firms do care more about money than the quality or type of work they produce. Just curious, but why did you choose that particular firm (and don’t say money!)

what kind of projects does the firm specialize in? are you working with commodity companies? or with leading edge innovators?

Oh, that isn’t what I meant at all, sorry if I wasn’t clear… Its just that (and this does depend on the client), when projects are primarily for the purpose of profit a lot of times its more about delivering research that supports what the client wants to deliver internally within their own company rather then truths that could really lead to innovation. I guess it just depends on how willing people are to explore and take risks… But, I would love to hear about other peopels experiences working in the field of design research. The reason I chose to work in the field? Well, I can’t imagine design without research – It lends so many insights to human behaviors and values and can be really inspiring to the entire design process.

“when projects are primarily for the purpose of profit a lot of times its more about delivering research that supports what the client wants to deliver internally within their own company rather then truths that could really lead to innovation.”

i suspect this is common…hiring researcher’s to do after-the-fact CYA.

Definitely common and a huge problem! “Validation” research is the norm for marketing driven (rather than design-driven) organizations.

I got burned big-time on a potentially large project when we entered the one-on-one user testing thinking of it as “design research” and the client in the room looked at it as “validation research.” Our goal of focusing on the problem areas of the product to improve was viewed by the client as damning to the validity! Project canceled, just like that!

Your disadvantage is that you’re working for the consultant, and it’s your clients who have the organizational problems! This is why I went corporate after many years of consulting–I’m fixing the problem from the inside out now.

“I’m fixing the problem from the inside out now.”

but not all corporates are equal. there’s still CYA inside. some VP put his neck on the line with a hunch. a SrVP calls the VP on it. VP “initiates” project which has been in executive bathroom for months. funding released for… research. how many times have you people known about a project months before it even started (even though commitments were already made)? depends on the company and product imo.

I am a little bit astonished that you are astonished by your client’s need for profit. But don’t let it get you down. It is actually a good thing. Clients do not hire design researchers - nor for that matter, designers - unless they expect some sort of return from having do so. I cannot imagine any of my clients hiring me or my collegues for any other reason than the expectation of making money as a result of our work.

It is just that - and here is where the fun comes in - they care too much about “appearing successful” because that is the metric on which they as corporate managers are evaluated. On the other hand, my team and I care mostly about gaining useful insights into people and their relationships to products, services and interactions. Our abilities to gain, communicate and act on these insights are what we are judged on. And given the unpredictability of consumer behavior and the difficulty of interpreting it meaningfully and usefully, my client’s profit motive is actually one of the few constants through all of this.

And even though they believe the little product world on their corporate campus to be the be-all-end-all, their company and their problems with internal and external competition are merely tools in your toolbox. They have to deal with implementing stuff you come up with. You, thankfully, don’t.

What I suggest you do is play with what is sacred to them (i.e. their need for profit) and treat what they consider to be playful ( i.e. those wacky things that people do) as sacred. This will not only make you enjoy being a design researcher (and will undoubtedly make anyone a better one) but it will help you from getting into a needlessly dark and cynical place in which you would suffer - alone.

“I am a little bit astonished that you are astonished”

that was my first reaction tbh. both to this thread and the “Get no respect” thread in General. what do IDers expect?

No, I’m definitely lucky to have the opportunity. It takes visionary leadership at the highest levels to make it happen. They figured out that design was a good thing to have after having good experiences with IDEO and Cooper (and choking on the bill.)

A couple of years ago I was in Japan with a group of engineers (and human factors folks and marketing as well) doing some broad cultural research - seeing the culture and also doing interviews in-homes. It was pretty open-ended stuff, and they were ready to go where the research led us - but at the same time, they staged a usability test with Japanese consumers, since they were already in the country. We weren’t involved in the test, but we had a chance to observe.

People came into the facility and were seated next to some equipment. They were shown two different versions of possibles supplies for the equipment. One was black, not well-labelled, and fairly rectilinear. The other was soft, brightly colored, with attractive labelling. The Japanese consumers exclaimed “kawaii!” and kept touching the second version, while pushing the first one away from them.

I was horrified - they needed to conduct research to get that? Couldn’t a designer simply make an intelligent design decision based on an understanding of what kind of reaction they wanted to create? This is a waste of testing!

And then I got over myself, the morally upright consultant, and I saw that my clients had their own clients who needed persuading, and that a video clip as “proof” was the way to do it. My clients knew what the right thing to do for their customers was, but they also knew what they had to do organizationally to get it done, and I realized they were to be commended for that.