A Birdseye View of Design Research

Externally, to a market of prospective buyers, Design Research is positioned as a means to generate insight that informs and inspires innovation. Internally, to the organization that practices the method, it can often be perceived as post-it notes. Part and parcel to the act of dimensionalizing DR is the ability to see it in three ways that design methodologist Horst Rittel suggests:

Research on design:

Observing the designer and team at work. We do this through dialogue, discourse and argument (good activities that don’t always feel good). 

Research in design:

Determining our methods for inquiry and inference. How will we gather the knowledge we think we need to design with? How will we make sense of it afterwards?

Research for design:

This is what we commonly understand to be design research; it’s our external message to our clients, prospective clients, and partners.

Within each view lie methodologies that deepen our skills and enable us to work through situations while developing and drawing from some forms of grounded theory [1]. For example, in the first act of conducting research on design, retrospectives and the unfortunate “post-mortem” provide important moments to reflect on how we did our design work in order to frame and/or solve a problem and the process yields principles for improvement that we can apply to the next problem we face. In the second, we create situations, tools, and interactions that produce stories and information about behavior and states of mind, which we then mill to find meaningful patterns. If the proximity of our teams is close, or our communications frequent, and ability to share is easy then our methods may evolve by teams building on the ideas of each other. Lastly, we apply our findings to the act of design: making models, building bridges to concepts, prototypes, and final designs that may be brought to market or entered into a workstream or life scenario. This is the act of using design research to inform and inspire design, and it is the socialization of the story of design in order to build the stakeholder interest and deeper investment needed to bring a new product or service to life.

(1) Glaser, B., Strauss, A., “The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research”, New York: De Gruyter, 196

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