Design Your Way into the Research Process

Megan Fath’s article “Design Your Way into the Research Process” recently appeared in A Designer’s Research Manual. The book has officially published and is now available for purchase!

Research may feel foreign to our prior experiences and education as designers. However, our practices and methods offer tangible value to uncovering user insights. Sadly, the discovery phases of the process are often depicted with a pronounced delineation between research investigation and design exploration. This separation inadvertently siloes the activities and dedicated talent for each phase. Design, however, plays a vital role in the research process. Just as the design process continues to embrace research, design practices are indispensable to the research phase.

A note: This is not intended to advocate for early problem-solving before the problem is understood. No doubt that compressed time schedules often challenge teams to do this.

Below are some suggested methods and roles to bring design into the research fold.

Observe with the designer eye.
When multi-disciplined teams include members with prior research experience, volunteer to observe the research interviews. Your attendance will help minimize the challenge of translating the findings to the design team. Moreover, you may identify aspects that may be missed by team members from different backgrounds. Designers contribute an observant eye to the user’s physical interactions and workarounds as well as an analytical perspective regarding how the current design is challenging or limiting users. Joining a team of experienced research colleagues will also help you develop your own observational interview skills.

If you are new to research, you may want to volunteer to assist the lead interviewer with documentation by capturing photographs and video. This is an opportunity to practice observing and will familiarize you with the inventory of rich storytelling material that can be leveraged later in the project. As designers become acclimated to research, they are encouraged to ask follow-up questions that are not leading (“How about…”) and that are not hypothetical scenarios (“Would you use…”). The interview participants lack skills to determine how to solve the problem. With time and practice, you will be able to lead interviews. In the interim, practice observing the interviews with your own eye, attuned to the unstated user needs, interactions, and experience design. Be prepared to contribute to team discussions. Consider the following questions: What were the stated and unstated user needs? How were these met (or not)? What should a designer keep in mind in designing a future experience for this participant?

Visualize the problem through information diagrams.
As designers, our visualization skills are beneficial in helping teams see problems in new ways and identify patterns that appear across the research. Used to bridge the problem-understanding aspects of research and the problem-solving aspect of design, information diagrams and visual models can provide a narrative about the findings, communicate problems as they were experienced, and identify new opportunities.

Creating information diagrams can start early in the team’s analysis process. It begins with listening to the discussions and sketching visual diagrams to capture the team’s emerging thoughts. These can start in your own notebook during debriefing and later shared more broadly with your team. As you become more confident in these settings, this may evolve into early, rough sketches on a whiteboard as you and the team discuss the research findings, followed by collaborative sketches. Later in the process, the diagrams become higher-fidelity and often take the form of a journey map or ecosystem map. Experience or journey maps are a good place to start, capturing what the team saw as the participant’s behaviors, needs, and emotions set along a process.

One of the most valued aspects of ethnographic research is the empathy it sparks for your clients and teams. This type of research is rich with human stories, emotion, and narratives that nurture emotional connections.

Engage in critique and dialogue.
Dialogue and critique are invaluable while the research team is analyzing the data and interpreting the findings. As designers, we inherently understand the iterative nature of identifying a solution. Crafting meaningful research insights, likewise, can mirror the critique culture that is integral to our own design education.

Encourage your collaborators to post their thoughts on walls to help prompt discussion. It may first start with early emerging insights or “wireframing” the research/user story.

The practice of crafting insights is characterized by skills that are similar to our own design process. It involves:

  • iteration
  • dedicated time
  • internal reflection
  • collaboration with others
  • consideration of audience
  • consideration of audience

Foster empathy through a compelling story.
One of the most valued aspects of ethnographic research is the empathy it sparks for your clients and teams. This type of research is rich with human stories, emotion, and narratives that nurture emotional connections. However, it can be challenging to distill these findings into a set of final deliverables (typically flat documents and presentations). For designers, this challenge can be flipped to a creative moment that breaks conventions. Leverage your design skills to frame the research findings as an evocative story, one that is memorable, digestible, surprising, and emotional.

Preparing to craft a captivating story can happen prior to completing the research. Consider the end experience at the start of the project. Doing so will ensure that the right plans for the desired documentation are in place from the onset. Designing with high-quality photographs and video is much easier than working with a myriad of back-lit, blurry, or inconsistent images. Early communication of a creative vision will also ensure that the team is able to help and deliver on the final outcomes.

Integrating these familiar design practices into the research phase will help create invaluable insights, build a true multi-disciplinary team, and minimize time invested in knowledge transfer when it comes time for the design phase.