What will the next design research methodology look like?

Early Era:
Journals, Found Artifacts, Film-based Photography, Drawings

Current Era:
Digital Photography, Disposable Camera Studies, Pager Studies, Velcro Modeling, Video Ethnography, Play Acting

Future Era:
Day In The Life GPS Tracking Studies, Disposable Camera Phone Studies, Participatory iPod Playlist Creation, ???

What do you think our new design research tools will look like?


A great question and something I try to think a lot about too. One thing that occurs to me is that as the field matures, we might find context-specific methods of working. For example, once one has done say, 20 in-kitchen projects, 20 in-workplace projects or 20 operating theatre projects, one has likely become an expert on issues in those contexts.

What does this mean? Maybe that new research tools will be developed to serve particular contexts. I saw the beginnings of this when I did a load of home-improvement types of projects. One becomes aware of certain relationships between stakeholders: between home-buyers and developers, between architects and tradespeople etc. With experience comes different ways of setting up and exploring their POV’s. Maybe this is not as sexy as a piece of new technology, but it is bourne of experience and pragmatism nonetheless.

Speaking of pragmatism, who out there has developed the best way to go through miles of video?

this is a great thread,
I like the ideas here, One thing I pick up is that our industry is often challenged in trying to define a process we can describe to clients or others.

The deifned ‘process’ allows us to have more credibility wher our activities are sometimes not understood by others due to the intense desire to quantify even the least qualitative data.

One big thing I identify with is the fact that our technology and trechnique for research will change, but the process, no matter how the industry trys to codify it, must to some extent be allowed to remain ‘fuzzy’ and messy. It is up to us (desingers, managers, researchers) to guide the client through with a sense of ‘confidence’ in the messiness.

Actually this is one of my favorite topics…

I think one of the biggest changes will be the integration of design research technology into products themselves. That is, sensors and communicationd devices could be built into products to provide real-time, real-world feedback about how products are being used (although privacy issues will need to be resolved).

In the more shor-term, RFID (radio frequency tags stickers) will allow product location, frequency of use and other basic characteristics to be readily captured. I’m developing a paper on that now for the IDSA magazine, but don’t know when that will be published.

Definitely this data has its place, but my reaction is yuck. Personally speaking, I’m so not interested in more technical presumably objective methods of data gathering. To be innovative (both as a methodology and in terms of the outcomes we provide) data - whatever type - needs to be synthesized.

One day it’s neurologists looking into consumer brains, or the earlier version of the story involving hypnotists. Then it’s tracking video cameras that monitor pathways of dozens of customers through a retail setting.

I guess I’m broadly painting everything with the same brush here, but when I see the hunger that we have to use Technology to deliver Truth, all under the auspices of understanding, I get uncomfortable. We deal with ultimately messy situations with imperfect resolutions and our own expertise and savvy and inferences are what lead to the breakthroughs.

Gah, sounds like I’m pimping for Blink or something - I’m not. And accurate objective data is valuable, absolutely. Usage information is powerful. What parts of a website is no one visiting? How many tasks are attempted but not completed? How many hours of a day is a device being used, and in what room?

But unless we understand why, and understand the meaning of the product to the human being, we’re really just moving numbers around.

Steve -

I absolutely agreed, advocate and conduct research that balances objective and subjective data sources.

I was responding to the original question about future TOOLS for research. Tools must be used with METHODS to conduct succesful research. in the RFID example, the RFID data is used to gather a broad stroke of data that would go along with contextual inquiry, interviews, behavioral observation, etc.

Got it - I see where you are coming from and you make an accurate and important distinction. One that I don’t think I make in my ambiguous use of vocab, and I think that Kord didn’t make either. The original subject was What will the next design research methodology look like? and Kord wrote in his final question What do you think our new design research tools will look like?

Rob, maybe help with understanding the way you use the terms - so we can have a proper dialog with some shared language (!) – the examples in Kord’s original post - journals, drawings, pager studies, iPod Playlist Creation - etc. - do you see those as tools or methods? Or is Kord mixing them haphazardly (as I might tend to do myself)?


Good idea to clarify the points.

I guess in the simplest sense, anything that is an object (camera, playlist, journal) is a tool. Tools can be used in various ways, allthough we tend to attribute common uses to the tools themselves. For example, cameras are for taking pictures, but they could (hypothetically) be used as doorstops.

So my original posting was focused on tools that may be applied to empower design researchers. RFID technology was not created for design research (it was largely created for tracking inventory and logisitcs) - but I am positing a Method for using RFID as a tool in research - in this case as a way to efficently capture high-level product usage information from a broad audience.

Fantastic thread!

What is exciting to me is that channels for authoring are proliferating. The camera phone is a good example. A few years ago I was very skeptical that they would take off – it seemed like an engineer’s attempt to just stuff more functionity in a box. But camera phones are starting to become ubiquitious now, at least some people are using them. What this suggests to me is that it will lower the threshold for user to participate in contextual-based research. You don’t need to dig around for a displosable camera, it is right there on your phone. Video and GPS may well follow.

The more the “tools” of design research (e.g. gadgets) are part of the user’s native environment, the more users can see participating in research as ordinary self expression (look what I saw), instead of being guinea pigs (I was monitored).

Forgot to mention that I also maintain a blog category on this general topic:

My most recent post references the U.K. Design Councils articles on emerging design technology and social issues - not exactly what we are talking about, but closely realted…

I’ll cross-reference this forum thread from the blog to hopefully pull in some more ideas.


Fun topic, I spend the better part of my existance developing new tools for data aquistion. Truly one of the bonuses i find with research, every job is different.

Now on the tool side of things I say the future is here but I agree it has to mesh with the methodology and like anything it all starts with the questions.

Course I tend to investigate tools for the sheer joy of finding new tools it seems.

The future in my playbook is things like:

Smart camera tracking, cameras that follow users and auto collect data as to where they are in a store, what possible navigational elements are in view, auto mapping features, and possibility if the resolution is there recognition that the user has picked up and object or put it down. Smarter camera tracking is funneling into the research end of things already, its spilling over from secruity efforts.

Even better would be camera regcognition of branding labels. I bet you could train a camera to recognize images. Hmmmm sounds like a fun one to resesarch.

RFID will no doubt have some fun research aspects to it, provided folks wire up all the pieces to make it work.

Using the wide range of available social networking tools could also be used to help fuel the research effort, from blogs to flickr, to delicious to 43things, its endless. Go where the user is. Right now its amazing how many social network tools are out there that are basically cultivating peoples habbits and patterns in exchange for a simple service. Tapping into that feed, in this all new, all open net reality that is unfolding could yield for some exciting development opportunies.

As for sorting or going thru miles of video, thats one piece of technology that hasnt innovated much. I too struggle with the pain of video. Time code, its all in the time code. My solution would be someting that would lock into the side of the camcorder and give me a button to simply “remember the moment”, then it’d send that log of moments to my pc, and batch digitize would do the rest. Its possible to create that tool, sadly not enough people in video production care about it.

Lastly and its not so much about getting more or better data, but its immersion. So much of what researchers need to do more of I think is immerse the client into the real world aspects of their product/experience/brand etc. Design teams need to meet the end user, you can do that thru a power point report, video of what happened, or take them there. I think the future would be do some kind of virtual mapping, some way of immersing designers into the realness of whats unfolding, with understanding of course. Cause data is chaos, its crazy, and design research firms help people bridge that gap.

/end ramble

It’s already happening via “spyware.”

…But why shouldn’t opt-in feedback loops be included in the products themselves?

Also, many companies are beginning to embrace discussion forums. (A potentially thorny issue for medical device manufacturers which must follow up on every “complaint.”)

Some, like SimpleHuman even actively seek idea submissions or host an “ideas” board.

P&G is naturally innovating in this area as well.

NYT reports today on a radio show that is using blogs to solicit ideas for future content

it was in the news today that shock treatment is back but not on mental patients this time rather very depressed people.

i think design research is like that too. one day it’s prussian blue the next is van gogh yellow ocre.

you have to define research first.