Research and design are blending

I would like to bring up an observation in hopes that it will stir some discussion.

I have noticed in my work over the last few years that research and design activities are starting to blend and to blur. I am often not sure whether I am doing research or design. This is especially evident in the very early pre-design phases (the fuzzy front end) and when participatory design activities are in use.

People trained only in research will not be prepared for this way of working. People trained only in design will not be prepared either. It is only by respecting each other’s perspectives and collaborating that this way of working can be successful.

What is going on in the fuzzy front end?


Ahh, the fuzzy front end–my favorite stage in the research process. In light of your remarks, perhaps this is why I (trained in research and design) enjoy this part so much.

The design of a research project seems to entail the development of certain hypotheses–your direction and the questions that you are addressing. In a more academic setting, with say a year or so of fieldwork, it seems as if more broad questions are appropriate and desirable. In most corporate settings, such extensive fieldwork is rare, if not a dream.

The exigencies of limited time/resources force me to switch hats somewhat while researching. Knowing that my research must feed the product development cycle, I can shift the focus of the investigation slightly. In fact, I find it difficult to divorce myself during a research project from design-related issues. When discussing or observing users my mind races with possible solutions and I find that this affects the research.

For the most part I think this is positive–I get at the issues in which the designers most often are interested. Rather than producing a report with observations or data that they may have a more difficult time connecting with, I feel I help bridge the gulf in creating more “actionable” research. A common complaint from designers is that they receive a research report that they cannot decipher and that seems so distant from their concerns.

Of course there are limitations and a research project more divorced from specific design issues might provide other valuable insights. The nature of the design researcher is one of compromise. For me it is better to have more actionable data than a broader project that the designers ignore because they feel they cannot use it.

This has been my experience in an in-house corporate setting.


Perhaps not explicit in my comments above is the issue of subjectivity in research. For the most part a human being is the vehicle through which data is collected. What are some of the criticisms or hurdles as well as the justifications and strategies for reduction. Or is subjectivism something to embrace?


Subjectivity can be kept under control in a number of ways:
~ excellent documentation methods
~ acknowledgement and expression of one’s own biases at the beginning of the research process
~ having a team of researchers (each with their own unique perspectives) collaborating during the anaylysis phase

During generative research (i.e., the fuzzy front end), there is room for subjectivity as long as it is acknowledged and documented. Generative research is focused on opportunities and relevant ideas. Ideas can come from anyone.

Liz (and others)

Would you buy into to the idea that research moves along a continuum from the more subjective to the more objective as research moves through the stages of discovery–definition–evaluation?

How do you deal with clients who want objective data? Do you, or have you, changed your research approach in order to capture more quantitative results (at any or all stages)? Is objectivity/subjectivity a variable that can be adjusted to suit the client?