Welcome to the Design Research Forum

Hello everyone,

I have been asked by Core77 to moderate this new forum on Design Research. I hope that we can create some good discourse here about some of the issues in design research.

Ugh - one issue already is that term “research.” If I am like most of you, I am suspicious of that term. So maybe for starters, does anyone have a better one?


I call it discovery (formalized research activities) or informational exchange (if only a kick-off/brain storming session).

Still has little effect on the clients who ruteinly would rather have you design in a vacuume than talk to the end-users or distributers. Especially when dealing with medical products. I just can not grasp what many clients are afraid of when it comes to envolving thier consumers in the development of products. Why are they so focused on the notion that theyhave the answers and “our customers do not know what they want or what the need until we give it to them” (actual quote from large medicval company) mentality.

What do you say to someone at a cocktail party who asks you what you do?

I have heard the following terms tossed around over the years:

End-User Research
Ethnographic Research
Corporate Anthropology
Cognitive Research
Consumer Understanding
Fuzzy Front End
Cutting Ice Cubes Out of Fog
Designing the Brief

Looking at these, each term seems to describe either a particular activity (e.g. “Planning”) or an intended result of some activity (e.g. “Innovation”). I lean toward thinking that there may not be a definitive term, but rather jagged, hyphenated terms for this field.

Defining our terms at the outset might help us talk more coherently on these boards about what we do.

What do people think?


I think too much focus on nomenclature is a waste of time. Check out any of the discussions that the Experience Design community has - so many of them quickly devolve to UX vs. ED vs. UE vs. UxD vs. IA vs. UI ad absurdum, and it really strangles their ability to move forward.

I think there are definitely reasons to have the story straight - but they mostly have to do with talking to people outside the discipline, and in those cases, the audience themselves dictates a lot about what’s important.

If someone has come to you with the term “ethnography” - maybe it makes sense to stick with that, if they are talking about “qualitative research” or “depth interviewing” - there’s no need to wrestle them to the ground to get them to understand your terminology.

I’d be more interested in hearing some thoughts about what the label du jour refers to - how do people effectively describe this work and what aspects of it are resonant?

I’ve continued to emphasize the inferential nature of the work - that it’s not simply collecting and collating, but that there is a creative, subjective and inferential process that goes on. I believe that idea has come across well, but of course, you can’t always be sure.

The long standing trend for names and terms to get hijacked, bastardised and / or morphed, strongly supports what Steve says.

From ‘Innovation’ to '‘Product Design’ and from ‘Knockers’ and ‘Gay’ to ‘getting stoned’ … OK the last ones may not be such a great examples but the semantic of each has evolved through vocational and cultural influences. Thank goodness too otherwise we would never have the double entendre.

“I think there are definitely reasons to have the story straight” of course, but it is interesting how this is getting increasingly difficult as industry sectors and cultural tribes compete for keywords on google … will SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) lead to the demise of the English language or enrich it. Probably the latter as small competitors look for new titles to identify themselves against the pervasive name thieving of larger ones. e.g. ‘product design’ on the major recruitment engines can even describe a person who creates new financial services.

Anyhow, my favourite cognomen for this activity is ‘Opportunity Engineering’ … for me it ‘does what it says on the tin’ - ‘opportuntiy’ is a good commecial ‘benefits’ word and ‘engineering’ implies a systematic, considered and informed approach … but google the phrase and I won’t get what I’m looking for.

Wow this is chewy…by that I mean that one could tease out several good ideas from these two posts alone and make several compelling new threads.

I do not completely agree with the point that too much nomenclature is a waste of time, which is why I wanted to begin by vomiting out all the nomenclature I could think of at the beginning of this thing. With any luck this might have helped to avoid falling into the UI v XD v ED trap when people are in mid-rant. I am also genuinely not sure about who will be participating. (Incidentally I have had as much trouble from people within my own organization - nay, more trouble - than from those outside of it.) So then maybe the best solution is to have a thread that becomes the “toilet of nomenclenture” - It can be for all hair-spiltting arguments about what things should be called.

And my God, let’s start a thread about the (necessary) subjectivity of this work. This is a critical point Steve, and needs some exploration. Thanks for making it. For instance, how is this creative skill best taught, honed, communicated? What exactly is it?

Here’s how cocktail party conversations usually go for me:

Puzzled party-goer: So what do you do for a living?

Apologetic me:

(Option A) I guess you could call me an urban anthropologist. I study people and their everyday behaviors the same way that someone might study tribal rituals in Africa.

(Option B…this is for those occasions when I think someone’s just being polite) It’s my job to collect enough information so that my clients can leverage their customers’ natural biases and prejudices.

The labels do get confusing, but the more I do this type of work, I think that in terms of our value, or function, we’re storytellers. Like any good storyteller, we come to know our characters well enough that we have a very good sense of how they think, what they value, and can see the world through their eyes. At the same time, we present our stories with enough enthusiasm and craft that people are curious to know what we have to say and don’t get bored or fall asleep (e.g. PowerPoint). With so much to share, we know how to package a nice short story, but if someone were really interested, we could fill an entire novel as well. And like any good journalist…we can provide you with the sources to back up what we’re saying!

I like Kord’s job description.

Research is a big word. Are we really that scientific?

this is how the dictionary defines research:

\Re*search"\ (r?-s?rch"), n. [Pref. re- + search: cf OF. recerche, F. recherche.] Diligent inquiry or examination in seeking facts or principles; laborious or continued search after truth; as, researches of human wisdom.

Syn: Investigation; examination; inquiry; scrutiny.

Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

Aahh, wisdom! Do we look for truth or business opportunities?

Often, our value for clients and colleagues lies in

  • story telling, like Kord wrote
  • sense making
  • being visual
  • inspiring

in the end: it’s all about having an idea. You might have it not at your drawing table, but out there in the real world - or under the shower.

I don’t disagree with this list, but I think it can be risky to position things in such a purely creative fashion. Tom Mulhern and I are going to be talking about this issue about About, With, and For - http://www.id.iit.edu/events/awf/fullschedule.html#pres22 for more info. Just one point from our talk - that the kind of language and the empahsis of that language can be very different between us and our “clients”…those differences can be very stressful especially for the people we do work for…

Stevep, I think that I agree with you in the sense that we have to translate into layman’s terms what our real, applicable value is. While I do fancy myself as a storyteller, I wouldn’t put it on my business card for fear of soundling a little too wacked out.

One of the things that our group pays special attention to is how we interface with traditional market research and the folks surrounding it. We don’t do any market research per se, but we know how it works, what it looks like, and the types of reports and data presentations they’re used to seeing. In the end, we’re trying to make our deliverable as familiar in types of look an feel as possible (because what were telling them is already sensational enough). Blend qualitative and quantitative: that’s our goal.

Kord - isn’t that part of what you guys will be talking about at AWF? Implicitly, if not explicitly?

And yes, business cards and titles. Oh for the good old dot-com days when it seemed cool to put “innovator” or “storyteller” etc. on one’s business card.

In fact, I couldn’t get it down to one word or phrase, because I always fear that “research” is read as “data collection” so I describe myself as
Customer Research->Product Strategy

Well, technically, that’s how I describe my business, more than myself, but whatever. I don’t have a title on my card, just that sort of “subtitle” if you will.

Of course, it’s problematic. In some organizations, like CPG, customer refers to the retailer, and consumer refers to the user of the product. But I didn’t like user research and consumer research of course isn’t accurate because most of us work in commercial settings as well.

Whatever terms you use will have an unintended resonance when you enter an arena with their own existing nomenclature (that was the lamest sentence I’ve ever written, btw) - so you’ve either got to brand the hell out of something (“ethnography” is the word!) or just step away from the conversation and try to explain yourself anew every time…

Hey Steve, don’t spoil our surprise!

But yes, blending qualitative with quantitative will be one of our implicit themes for AWF.

I was giving you props!

Just joshing…