Social scientists in design research?

I’m not a designer, I’m a psychologist with a master degree in social research. I’ve read on articles, like this one, that it’s common for researchers from some other areas to end up doing research for digital product designing: Blog | UserTesting

I wish to know if it’s different in industrial design and the design of physical goods. Someone told me it is, that in this field basically the same designers do the research, not researchers from other areas. Can you please tell me if that’s true?

Thanks in advance guys!

Especially the cultural aspect is challenging to research and requires in-context methods such as established by Bill Gaver over the years. It takes a keen observer to take the right conclusions from this research and be able to drive design directions.

Often this type of research is done by the designers themselves and even a small study can lead to very rich information for the design process.

Only larger firms (IDEO, Frog, Philips Design) can allow to make a separate user research as well as trendwatching team / department who then speak with the designers on a weekly basis.

I find it can be more effective if the designers do the research or if they are partnered with a true researcher. There are a few reasons for this.

  1. if the designers of the actually product is involved, they have a vested ownership of the research and they internalize it. If they are just handed a research deck, they might ignore it, or overlook certain things.

  2. if there is no designer on the research team it is possible the researchers will overlook something that a designer might get very inspired by or they may not be able to package the research in a way that is actionable for the design team. Research teams without designers run the risk of becoming removed from the process and perhaps a bit academic.

These are generalizations of course, but things to watch out for and why in a lot of smaller firms the designers do the research themselves. The process is also rarely linear. It doesn’t typically flow in a Research → Design → Build flow. In reality there are many smaller cycles of these phases and it is good to get into the solution space while doing research to quickly test out some of the recommendations.

What is great to see is when researchers experience that designers can lead them towards better research methods and findings, and designers take a leap with their design process to achieve ‘higher level’ i.e. scientifically informed designs. Even if it feel awkward at first. For example, a Spiral Dynamics model doesn’t typically at first tickle a designer’s imagination or make it very practical to inform a design, but a researcher can make it practical and form a methodology. A partnership collaboration is probably the best way to have a close collaboration without losing each discipline’s interests.

Thank you guys. I’m learning a lot from your respective answers.

I think it’s implied that big industrial design (of physical goods) companies can have social scientists to do the research. In smaller companies is more common that the designers also do all the research. Did I get that right?

That sums it up pretty well. Sometime consulting firms will have them, even smaller or medium sized ones, if they are adept at seeing those services.

Especially as many products are packaged as part of a “customer journey”, ethnographic and/or anthropological research is often called upon to describe behaviors and aspirations through the journey, or product life cycle. It can be informative, especially when ‘extremes of use’ are identified at either end of the bell curve.

But to be vaguely cynical for a moment, researchers are often used to ‘validate’ product proposals, and while research results aren’t always actionable in terms of Industrial Design, it allows project managers to make sure they have buy-in and cover their asses in the event of marketing failure. “…well, we all bought into the data and executed upon it, but the best laid plans etc…”

yup, the old CYA approach to product development (that stands for Cover Your Ass kids)… never been a big fan. I was having beers with one of the originators of “design thinking” and UX. After a few drinks he confided that he didn’t think any of it actually worked and at best it created somewhat incremental, “design by committee” results… I just can’t feel good about using a process that I believe in will yield better results just to drive up billable hours. That is one of the reasons I left one of the big firms I worked for. My impression was that many of the people that tended to stick there were a bit more academic and were fine with research for research’s sake, as long as they could charge a lot of money for it of course…

Like any tool, when used effectively, design research can be very helpful! When over used, used improperly, or used as a substitute for intuition and decisiveness it can go in circles… so if you go into design research, make sure your results are action oriented and move the process forward.

Just my .02.

Designers, in general, are fine for research if they keep their mouths shut and just observe. I think that it is a rare breed that can facilitate a discussion, designers are rarely in that breed. Also, designers are excellent for solving problems, they are only OK for identifying problems.

While not applicable for consultants and can be applicable to embedded corporate researchers, quantity time is far superior to quality time. It takes time to build a relationship so that the information/data provided is good. And it takes time to find the right people to ask. Most potential research respondents aren’t worth the time or money.

As for CYA research, I would fire any of my researchers in a heart beat for wasting time. I honestly don’t understand this. There is no such thing as good or bad data. Sure, it’s great if your product is a hit, “good data”. If your product sucks, “bad data”, then kill the project. Yes, most companies don’t kill, but they are fools to dump resources into a hole. But that’s their problem. Anyone who purposely cuts a finger off at the table saw has no sympathy from me. A tool is only as good as you use it.

That’s very good advice. It pretty much sounds unethical. That kind of people doesn’t seem to be thinking on the costumer.

That typically doesn’t come from the research team, it comes from above when someone wants to validate their decision in case of a failure in the market. It is of course a terrible idea and a waste of resources…

Commercial failures are certainly possible with above-board research. At best, the research is a small sample and no matter how hard you try to randomize, you are bound to hit a cluster sooner than later. That cluster can skew results leading to failure when ramped up.

But that is also a part of having the freedom to “fail”, which imo, needs to be a mandate from the top. “Failure”, in the right culture, should be celebrated at every phase and hopefully it won’t be taken all the way to launch.

I recently got into it with a manager who transfered from PE to NPD. They wanted the NPD goals to be X number of launches per year. I wanted kills to be in the statement too. The other manager could only see kills as a sandbag number and could not see launches as a sandbag number. It is a very slippery slope from launches only to never killing. It is very prevalent in other divisions/business groups of my company and is reflected in their slow organic growth numbers.


If I understand what you seek in your comparison of UX designers and physical product designers-

Digital UX methodology is different than physical product research in that UX can deploy an iterative design process very inexpensively and intrinsically : that is, UX itself, can be programmed to provide design feedback to optimize a benefit to the user and/ or the producer while the product is being used. UX products can, in and of themselves, produce its own marketing feedback The feasibility of developing iterations for physical products, however, depends on the economics of product’s intended market(often seen on the T.V show Shark Tank), Depending on the market economics of the physical product, it can be prohibitively expensive to determine which feature of the physical product is favorable for beneficial use, or comparable fitness for the intended market. Iterative design methods in physical products is cost effective only in cases where product differentiation is crucial in mass production and where users alternative use of another product would be devastating to the product brand, such as Coke vs. Pepsi or certain kinds of automobiles. An interesting case is tooth brushes do not seem crucially situated in the market but disposable razors are. For disposable razors see Gillette R&D - A journey through innovation and implementation - OxGadgets.
Anyway, almost always, the decision to develop a physical product comes from the industrial designer’s client’s marketing department to determine the Most-Advanced-Yet-Acceptable product - it is not decided by industrial designers in the firm. So the onus for successful physical products, lay with the capability of critical decision making of product ideas by the client, not by a methodology by the industrial design firm.

I sympathize with your inquiry because it can end you in a quagmire of design folk-ways versus social facts. What you(and I) really need is a paper that examines industrial design firms from the subfield of sociology known as the sociology of occupations. This kind of study then could be an underlay to your psychological inquiry. I speculate,however, that a sociological examination of typical industrial design firms will reveal that the vast amount of industrial design research does not require an applied science, quantitative, or economic optimizing methodology applied to physical products, rather industrial designers produce product ideas through a (holistic) qualitative process. Almost exclusively, industrial designers create within a holistic framework that communicate the results as deliverables through artistic visualization and express them by force of personality to the client as a form of creative ‘solution finding’'. The product idea is then evaluated by the client’s product development apparatus to determine suitability for brand management and mass production in order to be sold in a desired and applicable market sector.

I will stop here and brace myself for the blow-back from the forum.

I refer you to sources that seem situated with your academic inquiry:

Never Leave Well Enough Alone by Raymond Lowey Historical foundation of American business and industrial design
Design Methods by Nigel Cross Design methods differentiated by engineers versus designers
The Evolution of Useful Things by Henery Petroski A chapter discusses what industrial designers typically do for clients
Turn Signals are the Facial Expression of Automobiles by Donald Norman -a cognitive psychologist Discusses empathy in design
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Milhalyi Csikszentmihaly-a psychologist Discusses the dynamics between creators and what is created
Addiction By Design by Natasha Schull A sociological perspective of casino design

Yes, there absolutely are specialist researchers working in design, most of whom are trained in sociology, anthropology, or psychology. Designers do their own research, yes, but social scientists are trained in both qualitative and quantitative methods, and employ both generative and evaluative research. This is often a luxury for many firms, so you will find small design firms lacking social scientists. But firms like IDEO definitely have them, and all the tech companies employ UX researchers, some of whom are trained in human computer interaction, but most of whom are trained in social science.

It is in large firms where researchers are also often asked to “CYA” for someone else, by generating data that provides them with “proof” their design is correct. This is a common problem that all design researchers grapple with, and more junior folks, particularly those without advanced methodological training, often end up “validating” someone else’s idea. This is not a foregone conclusion, of course, but it happens a lot. Most the design researchers I’ve worked with have a PhD and all have had M.A.s at a minimum. Designers who do research might do well to generate ideas, or create new possibilities, but they’re really better off when collaborating with someone who knows how to develop good research questions, and appropriate research designs. For reference, I am a PhD in sociology and the author of Practical Ethnography