What is Design Research?
Updated: Jan 27
Most recently I was invited on a platform to share my personal journey from being a trained product designer to a design researcher. The first question I got asked was to define design research and how it is different from other research.
This question was expected as I often get asked this question by design research critics and or research academicians who delve into great depth of research methodology.
This question has not only led me to introspect and define design research more clearly for me and my team but has also forced me to add to the existing noise around the topic. However, I intend to de-clutter and simplify the definition because I believe that practitioners have made design research difficult.
In order to de-clutter and give a crisp cohesive definition to the term, I am going to split the term into parts, i.e.: design & research.
Let us take the word research first and define the role of a researcher. A researcher is someone who studies the world around them and learns about it through observing people, cultural and political influences on behaviours, and contributes to the world by adding and sharing knowledge. A researcher is also committed to paying attention to the world systematically, meaning there is a methodological way in which a researcher goes about studying the world. Finally, a researcher also records their experience so that they can publish for others to review and add to existing knowledge.
Now let’s talk about design. What does it mean to design or be a designer? Although the definition of what is design is an age-old debate for the purpose of this article I am going to go with the most simple definition of design. That is design is to make, so a designer is someone who desires to make something, and in particular make something that makes a difference in the world, trying to make systems and services better and accessible.
Therefore, a design researcher is someone who studies the world around them so that they can design better.
In other words, by using the skills and the knowledge that comes out of studying the world and people who inhabit the world design researchers inform action that can be taken to design things in the world.
This I believe is the original intent with which design research was established as a practice.
But if you are serious about the research you will realize that design research has become less about people and its even less about methodology. In the research world most often the conflict is not about the findings or the insights, instead, the debate often lies in what methods were used to find those insights. As researchers our first commitment and obligation should be to record findings but also document in great detail where these findings have come from so sample sizes, geography, what instruments were used and how did you arrive at the conclusions become important, this process has to be logical, found in or built upon existing knowledge.
It is with this approach that the research has to be curated. In other words, research also needs to be designed before going to the field for data collection. In design research, we use qualitative research as a method because in its nature it allows us to capture stories, narratives and really find out in a short span of time about people’s behaviours, personalities, cultural affiliations, etc., in short, you really get to know the audience and there are many ways to conduct qualitative research. Yet, user research also another term for design research has become less user-centric and, instead, has become a list of requirements or obstacles designers, companies, or services must overcome. Design research and user research feel less about understanding the user, their intentions and the environmental factors that affect them and the potential and excitement that could come from that understand and, instead, design research or user research has started to feel, at its worst, a justification for making some basic visual or colour changes to an interface and at its best it feels like a justification for cognitive biases.
So if you are a design researcher that truly wants to understand user behaviours, needs, and motivations through qualitative methodologies so that you can understanding the impact of design on an audience then you need to do go back to and first understand what methods can be used to design your research.
PS: In-depth interviews is not ethnography.