Research as a process

I know as designers we strives to have an infallible design process that leads us to the best posable conciliation every time. But how about research? Is it something you just do without thinking about it? Or do you have a specific repeatable process that you use when setting out to research a topic?

I am still in school and in my program at the beginning stage of a project we are sent out to “do research”. For example, I was once told find out what a consumer desires in a toaster. I’m still unclear what doing research entirely entails, however, it is sort of hit or miss for me. sometimes I am lucky and find really valuable information and sometimes I search for days without finding anything valuable.

How do you research?

This might be a good thread for the “design research” board, by the way. Be an improvement from all the “whatZ nu wif sneakers and kool electronics” postings.

I’m a design researcher by profession, and I’ve done a fair number of guest-lecture gigs at design schools where I talk to the students about how (and why) to do design research.

Seems like there’s enormous buy-in - despite the old tradition of designers-as-snobs who dismiss any research process as challenging to their God-given-gift to miraculously channel culture, most students are really into it, asking good questions, hungry to know more and do better. That’s a massive generalization, I guess, but that’s been my experience so far. Maybe the ones that don’t care dont show up to the class or don’t pay attention.

I feel terrible when I hear stories like yours - that you’re assigned the task without being given any direct guidelines. Doing research is not natural or intuitive, any more than design is. There are natural skills and gifts that some have to make them more naturally inclined to pursue the disciplines, or to pick up some of the skills, but it’s a lot of effort to learn to do it well.

I’ll try to boil it all down to a few points:

Try to get out of YOUR shoes and how you view the world and find people that can talk to you about THEIR view of the world. About the toaster, about the toast, about meal prep, about the decor in their kitchen, about nutrition, about morning rituals. Take a broad view, and keep the discussion very very open-ended. Talk to real people, and don’t read questions off a survey - have a conversation. Ask questions and follow up and follow up and dive deeper. Get the biggest picture you can. Don’t worry - for a little while - about what the “it” you are making has to be. Focus on building a deep understanding of their world and their concerns. Let that stew and try to distill it into some big key insights. THEN start thinking about your solution.

…you do the research you have time for…the important thing is you do it…user research and consumer ethnography are replacing conventional market research for good reason…it is fatally flawed…prone to false positives and negatives…researching in the consumers home as they use a product yields much more relaiable data, but watch more what they do than what they say (not always the same) and watch for compensitory behaviors and work arounds…listen for the things which seem really important to each consumer, beyond function and features…seek the emotional keys…

You’re not alone, many “respectable” design firms still don’t know how to do it.

I’m reminded of the recent TV special where Pentagram was hired by Design Within Reach to design a new backyard grill. Their research included visiting an exotic car dealership, but I don’t recall much in the way of visiting people’s homes or talking to potential customers. (Note that Pentagrams ID studio is run by a “name” designer. That typically means personal expression and ego come before UCD.)

But you’re wise to ask the question. User Centered Design is the new standard. Those who aren’t practicing it do it at their own peril.

Don’t forget that UCD also includes principles of usability (often called “heuristics”) Read “the Design of Everyday Things” and “Emotional Design” by Donald Norman for a start.

For texts on UCD research I like “Contextual Design” by Karen Holtblatt, and I like what Farm, SonicRim (and of course what Steve) is doing. Scan their websites and you’re likely to find out what’s hot in the field of design research.

Cordy Swope’s Visionary Stupidity article has some good advice for someone in your shoes: