Design Research

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What is Design Research?

Design research is the practice of gaining insights by observing users and understanding industry and market shifts. For example, in service design it involves designers’ using ethnography—an area of anthropology—to access study participants, to gain the best insights and so be able to start to design popular services.

“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.”

— Carl Rogers, Psychologist and founding father of the humanistic approach & psychotherapy research

Service design expert and Senior Director of User Research at Twitch Kendra Shimmell explains what goes into good design research in this video.

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Get Powerful Insights with Proper Design Research

When you do user research well, you can fuel your design process with rich insights into how your target users interact—or might interact—in contexts to do the things they must do to achieve their goals using whatever they need on the way. That’s why it’s essential to choose the right research methods and execute them properly. Then, you’ll be able to reach those participants who agree to be test users/customers, so they’ll be comfortable enough to give you accurate, truthful insights about their needs, desires, pain points and much more. As service design can involve highly intricate user journeys, things can be far more complex than in “regular” user experience (UX) design. That’s where design research comes in, with its two main ingredients:

  • Qualitative research – to understand core human behaviors, habits and tasks/goals

  • Industry and Market research – to understand shifts in technology and in business models and design-relevant signs

An ideal situation—where you have enough resources and input from experts—is to combine the above to obtain the clearest view of the target customers of your proposed—or improved—service and get the most accurate barometer reading of what your market wants and why. In any case, ethnography is essential. It’s your key to decoding this very human economy of habits, motivations, pain points, values and other hard-to-spot factors that influence what people think, feel, say and do on their user journeys. It’s your pathway to creating personas—fictitious distillations that prove you empathize with your target users as customers—and to gain the best insights means you carefully consider how to access these people on their level. When you do ethnographic field studies, you strive for accurate observations of your users/customers in the context of using a service.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

How to Leverage Ethnography to Do Proper Design Research

Whatever your method or combination of methods (e.g., semi-structured interviews and video ethnography), the “golden rules” are:

  • Build rapport – Your “test users” will only open up in trusting, relaxed, informal, natural settings. Simple courtesies such as thanking them and not pressuring them to answer will go a long way. Remember, human users want a human touch, and as customers they will have the final say on a design’s success.

  • Hide/Forget your own bias – This is a skill that will show in how you ask questions, which can subtly tell users what you might want to hear. Instead of asking (e.g.) “The last time you used a pay app on your phone, what was your worst security concern?”, try “Can you tell me about the last time you used an app on your phone to pay for something?”. Questions that betray how you might view things can make people distort their answers.

  • Embrace the not-knowing mindset and a blank-slate approach – to help you find users’ deep motivations and why they’ve created workarounds. Trying to forget—temporarily—everything you’ve learned about one or more things can be challenging. However, it can pay big dividends if you can ignore the assumptions that naturally creep into our understanding of our world.

  • Accept ambiguity – Try to avoid imposing a rigid binary (black-and-white/“yes”-or-“no”) scientific framework over your users’ human world.

  • Don’t jump to conclusions – Try to stay objective. The patterns we tend to establish to help us make sense of our world more easily can work against you as an observer if you let them. It’s perfectly human to rely on these patterns so we can think on our feet. But your users/customers already will be doing this with what they encounter. If you add your own subjectivity, you’ll distort things.

  • Keep an open mind to absorb the users’ world as present it – hence why it’s vital to get some proper grounding in user research. It takes a skilled eye, ear and mouth to zero in on everything there is to observe, without losing sight of anything by catering to your own agendas, etc.

  • Gentle encouragement helps; Silence is golden – a big part of keeping a naturalistic setting means letting your users stay comfortable at their own pace (within reason). Your “Mm-mmhs” of encouragement and appropriate silent stretches can keep your research safe from users’ suddenly putting politeness ahead of honesty if they feel (or feel that you’re) uncomfortable.

Overall, remember that two people can see the same thing very differently, and it takes an open-minded, inquisitive, informal approach to find truly valuable insights to understand users’ real problems.

Learn More about Design Research

Take our Service Design course, featuring many helpful templates:
Service Design: How to Design Integrated Service Experiences

This Smashing Magazine piece nicely explores the human dimensions of design research:
How To Get To Know Your Users

Let Invision expand your understanding of design research’s value, here:
4 types of research methods all designers should know.

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Literature on Design Research

Here’s the entire UX literature on Design Research by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Design Research

Take a deep dive into Design Research with our course Service Design: How to Design Integrated Service Experiences .

Services are everywhere! When you get a new passport, order a pizza or make a reservation on AirBnB, you're engaging with services. How those services are designed is crucial to whether they provide a pleasant experience or an exasperating one. The experience of a service is essential to its success or failure no matter if your goal is to gain and retain customers for your app or to design an efficient waiting system for a doctor’s office.

In a service design process, you use an in-depth understanding of the business and its customers to ensure that all the touchpoints of your service are perfect and, just as importantly, that your organization can deliver a great service experience every time. It’s not just about designing the customer interactions; you also need to design the entire ecosystem surrounding those interactions.

In this course, you’ll learn how to go through a robust service design process and which methods to use at each step along the way. You’ll also learn how to create a service design culture in your organization and set up a service design team. We’ll provide you with lots of case studies to learn from as well as interviews with top designers in the field. For each practical method, you’ll get downloadable templates that guide you on how to use the methods in your own work.

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete service design project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a service designer. What’s equally important is that you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in service design.

Your primary instructor in the course is Frank Spillers. Frank is CXO of award-winning design agency Experience Dynamics and a service design expert who has consulted with companies all over the world. Much of the written learning material also comes from John Zimmerman and Jodi Forlizzi, both Professors in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University and highly influential in establishing design research as we know it today.

You’ll earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight it on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or on your website.

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