The term “design research” encompasses a host of approaches, but what is common amongst them is the concern to inform[i] design and enable “better” design decisions.
All design, including that of technological artefacts, is rooted in a socio-cultural context. Artefacts and technologies do not exist independently of socio cultural contexts; they make sense as artefacts and technologies within the contexts in which they are embedded. Design research attempts to synthesize knowledge about people and their relationships with things and therefore of the systems they create and inhabit.
Design research draws from various streams of knowledge – psychology, sociology, literary theory, communication theory and the technical and natural sciences, and aims at creating a composite understanding. The comprehending of material artifacts, technologies, people and the web of relationships that they dwell in, is the key focus of the research.
Ethnographic and other interpretive techniques aim to understand the life world of existing or potential users of a product or a service and to translate these insights into design directions or strategies. While this can be a separate front end activity, it is desirable to integrate it with other aspects of the design process such as prototyping, testing etc.
SOME ASPECTS OF DESIGN RESEARCH
1. DESIGN IS FOR PEOPLE AND BY PEOPLE
It is stating the obvious to say that all design is for people (and by people). Yet it is important to reiterate it for the following reasons –
a. It reminds us that for design to be effective, understanding people and the contexts that they construct and reside in is vital. This understanding is not necessarily gained by following a pre decided step by step approach but neither is it completely random[ii]. One can differ over the methodologies of understanding and the ways of engaging with users. For instance, what is “intuitive” design” may well be a deep understanding of the user group by virtue of belonging to it. However, design research becomes even more relevant in a situation where our understanding of users is limited, such as venturing into new markets, designing new products, and where we need to create differentiation in an existing market
b. People and objects do not exist as independent bodies but in a system of relationships with other people, technologies and artefacts. When we design a product, it is not a neutral entity which the “users” merely “use” in a functional sense, but is something that exists connected to and in a larger system of meanings held and formulated by the social group. A car is not merely understood in a purely utilitarian sense (one can argue that the understanding of utilitarian is itself a meaning held by the particular social group), it is not just a form of transport to get from one place to another. Its form and its very existence in the world are associated with multiple meanings. The particular technology that is immured in it reflects the values of a certain time and place, in short history. A possible design decision of how much boot space is to be allocated with respect to leg space is informed by a set of meanings – the lifestyle of its potential users. This implies that the task of design research is to understand this system of meanings and relationships in which the artefact would be located. This also implies that design and design research are not merely “value added services” to improve the “look and feel” of something which is essentially “technological” but instead embody key insights that can be translated into design directions to suggest alternatives to existing technologies and their use.
c. Since design is undertaken by designers who are also people, and part of a socio-technical-material world, an awareness of their views, meanings, and agendas is equally important as it can influence the course of design.
2. RESEARCH IS NOT EXTERNAL TO DESIGN
Design research is a front end activity, the insights from which inform design.
While that works out conveniently, the real (or ideal?) relationship between research and design is more complex than that. With research, design begins. A dialogue between designers, managers, and production engineers right at the outset of research can feed into the research.
Design researchers are required to translate insights from their research into a language which makes sense to the stakeholders of the design. This then is an important part of design research, differentiating it from conventional market research.
Continuous engagement in the design process is highly recommended as it enables one to make use of emergent situations in the design process. These emergent situations and contingencies cannot be anticipated in advance.
3. IT IS NOT JUST A SET OF TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES
Very often design research is reduced to a set of motley tools and techniques.
“We do shadowing, metaphor elicitation, affinity mapping, focus groups, interviews, surveys…” – a long list of fancy methods is proudly displayed on websites , books, and even in research methodology courses, like trophies. There are hardly any explanations of the methodological positions adopted for the research and which can range from the Positivist to the Constructivist and Participatory. The methodology adopted would then determine the method / methods and its deployment in a certain social context. There is just no one size fits all approach.
[i] Design research has been classified into 3 types – research for design (research based design), research into design (research analysing how design works) and research through design (design-based research). In this case, by design research we mean research for design. (Design Research: Synergies from Interdisciplinary perspectives)
[ii] There can be effective designs that have apparently emerged from serendipitous/random/inexplicable occurrences, but one assumes that in a business context, design, as any other activity, is approached relatively more systematically. There is, however, no evidence that design research necessarily leads to effective/ desirable outcome, since the relationship between such “knowledge” and “action” is not linear.