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Designers are not researchers: the difference between design and social research

by Sam Ladner on July 27, 2012 · 10 comments

in Blog, Popular, Research Methods, design, sociology

I am not a designer. I do not claim to be. Sure, I’ve done a few wire frames in my life (no, I will not provide screenshots). I even found myself designing a logo once. Here was someone who almost failed Art in Grade 8, who had never taken a design course in any form, ever, somehow tasked with creating a visual language.

It was ridiculous and I knew it.

Explain to me, then, how this situation is less ridiculous: someone who has never taken a basic research methods course, designing and conducting a research project on social behavior?

But that is exactly what we ask designers to do on a regular basis. In my experience, this is particularly true for user experience designers, but I’ve seen even industrial designers grab a moleskin and run into the field to “do ethnography.” It would be absurd for a designer to expect to go into a chemistry lab and “do a titration.” Yet this is precisely the way in which many designers are tasked to do field research, usability studies, and even surveys.

I have no idea what this is

There is a craft to research. There is a also a science to it (imagine!). The basic building blocks to doing social research include understanding the breadth of social research methods. I don’t call myself a “design researcher” because it doesn’t cover the breadth of my skills. I can research interaction design, the nature of communication, organizational structure, or the cultural significance of an object. I draw on all these topics. I also draw on multiple methods.

Focus groups, surveys, content analysis, discourse analysis, ethnography and even hermeneutics are all well established social research methods that any sociologist learns in their training. The typical social researcher will specialize in a particular method, but they will know where and when to use a particular method. My friend Karen, for example, is a heavy-lifting quant head, but she teaches her students how and when to do all methods.

Likewise, the trained designer may have a specialty, but she also has familiarity with other techniques. Her prototyping skills may include sketching, for example, but she may choose to build a prototype with a 3D printer for a particular project. She knows how to design interactions in software, perhaps, but she chooses to make a physical object because it suits the context.

Social researchers understandably get their noses out of joint when designers try to jump their train and ride it off into the ethnography sunset. I’m the first to admit I’ve been annoyed when I have had designers discount my skill and experience. That’s ego, sure. But there’s more: trained social researchers can make sure those valuable research dollars are best spent.

Social researchers can save you money. They can design a cheaper, faster, better research project that yields exactly what you want. I’ve had people ask me for an ethnography, for example, and I’ve offered given them what they really need: a system of key performance indicators.

The reason why designers want to do the research themselves is at least partly because they fear social researchers will “tell them what to design.” That’s a fair criticism; social researchers often come off as harpy-preachy in their “critiques.” But there are ways we can all play nice together. In my experience, I’ve developed a few guidelines for making sure I don’t overstep my role as a researcher and veer into design.

  • Social researchers find problems; designers find solutions: Designers are good at coming up with solutions to problems. Social researchers need to help them find the real problems
  • Social researchers offer principles, designers create form: my research deliverables to designers are not “design this,” but “design while thinking about this.” It’s up to the designer to make that into an objects.
  • Social researchers define creative territory, designers do the creating: I usually like to tell designers I’m creating a sandbox in which they can play. That is the best location for them to play and has all the tools they need to be creative. But I do not tell them what do in that sandbox.
  • Social researchers design research; designers design everything else: Designers often fail to see research itself is a design process, one which social researchers are adept. Social researchers are creative in solving design research problems. So let us.

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Categories: Blog · Popular · Research Methods · design · sociology

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave Malouf July 27, 2012 at 12:12 pm

I understand where you’re coming from and I respect your point of view. I do think though that you are describing the worse of the situation instead of the best of the situation. I also think you are describing a level of ideal research that indeed does require a professional like yourself versus the most common situation for a designer is that they are the only ones around to do the research anyway.

But I want to go back to your ending bullets.
Problem definers/Solution makers: I think that dichotomy doesn’t really work. There are lots of different parts to a problem and social scientists get to the data that helps understand some parts and other people are expert at other parts. The designer is expert at using visualization and other designerly tools as ways of analyzing the combined data towards helping a team reach a complete holistic understanding of the problem space.

Principles vs. form: There are many principles that come from design and that is also true about “territory” or “context” or “constraints”.

Your last point is also true, but designers can also design research too, but in a different way.

Again, I’m not saying there isn’t something special that Social Researchers don’t offer. The main thing they offer is rigor in their methods and their experience in that rigor’s application to methodologies.

What I would offer you though is that you’re missing something really important about why designer are so interested in doing research and that is empathy. The goal of research for a designer is to gain experience with those they’ll be designing for and instead design with them and if they can’t design for them with a strong empathetical bias towards their subjects.

For me, if you miss this aspect of why, you’re whole argument above falls apart and is just a wrongly placed rant.

In ideal situations I worked in organizations that had what we called design researchers steeped in social research who worked hand in hand with designers so that both designed the research, did the data collection, and analyzed the data (often including other parties like product managers and engineers during key parts of all 3 steps) and also moving further downstream into design.

Understanding your expertise does not need to imply exclusion, but rather finding your place for where you add value. The hard part is that few contexts have the ability to work this way due to resource constraints, which means that the social researcher’s formal training needs to be taught as best as possible to the designer b/c they will be the only ones who will be hired at all. Yes, there is a price paid for this efficiency, but it is an efficiency that is reality.

– dave


2 Sam Ladner July 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Hi Dave,

thanks for the thoughtful reply! You really offer a lot of insight with this comment, and I appreciate it.

What I’m suggesting is that designers without any training cannot and should not be doing research without realizing that the are compromising the results of that research. I designed a Web site the other day. There was no budget for a designer so I went ahead and did it. Did I spend time on the right things? No, I fouled up Photoshop, yet again. For hours. I could have used a designer, let me tell you.

To take this further, did I get value out of designing? Oh yes, absolutely. Just as a designer would get value out of researching. This is especially true for those who engage in interpretive methods, like ethnography, which creates deep knowledge and empathy with users. C’mon along, everyone, on the research project! That’s what I usually say. But I don’t say, hey guys, you don’t need me to help you clarify the real social problem here. Or, hey guys, I’m sure that my knowledge of social networks really won’t tighten your design focus.

If you’re trying to diagnose a *social* problem, you need a social researcher. If you need to design a *social* research project, you need a social researcher. Maybe you don’t have the money. Ok. Yup, you’re right. It’s a matter or resource constraints. If you don’t have the money for a lawyer, maybe you go to a paralegal. That’s ok. But you’re sure not going to go to a veterinarian! You gotta be in the right ball park. Some training in social research is a must.

And FWIW, I don’t think the biggest value I offer is rigor. It’s an understanding of social life in deep, insightful way. That is not “rigor” so much as it is knowledge.


3 Nate Archer August 2, 2012 at 9:09 am


Really thought provoking post that did make me think about the other side of the argument. However I tend to agree with the previous commenter.

Empathy is a key driver in the realm of design research, while a designer may not have rigor of research methods or “an understanding of social life in a deep, insightful way”, they do have a unique knack for empathizing with users.

It is my belief that this empathy is one of the key skills that makes a successful designer. Obviously social researchers bring a huge amount of skill and experience to the table, but I think we can’t discount the intuitive skill and experience of designers.

4 Mike Gotta August 2, 2012 at 8:39 am

Hi Sam,

I’m wondering if this blog post supports what you’re saying, perhaps bringing in other angles to the topic:


5 Sam Ladner August 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

Hi Mike,
Your point about social theory is definitely related to what I’m saying. Interestingly, I notice you also mention psychological aspects. I find that psychology is usually the only “social theory” many non-social scientists are familiar with.

But yes, social theory is important.


6 Julie Cook September 9, 2012 at 9:30 am

One of the questions I would like to raise is why there is a strong self protection message to this article? From my experience, we are at a cross-roads, where there is a need not only for hybrid teams (interdisciplinary), but also multidisciplinary individuals. Currently there are a number of postgraduate programs worldwide that are offering training for social scientist to learn about design and loosen up and apply some design thinking and for designers to put firm structures in place in tackling their projects. Knowledge is there to be shared. No one benefits from a protectionist frame of mind.


7 Sam Ladner September 9, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Hi Julie,

You’re preaching to the choir on your call for multidisciplinary individuals! I completely agree that we should aspire to learn from other specialists.

However, a LOT of people benefit from a protectionist frame of mind, I would argue. Customers OF professionals get a better product! Imagine if we had no standardization in accounting, law or medicine! Those customers are assured of a basic level of professional quality. Likewise, the professionals themselves get the benefit of higher wages, lower numbers of those entering the field, and assurance of better quality competitors. Everyone benefits! That is, everyone except the non-professional.

I find that design’s culture toward openness has lead to a degradation of standards. I approve of accreditation programs, especially when they push designers to have a basic level of competency with social research. What this post is really about is not keeping people out, but pulling people UP. Sociologists, for their part, have done a horrible job of reaching out to designers (anthropologists have been much better). So we all have work to do here.


8 Katherine Bennett November 16, 2012 at 10:38 pm

When Liz Sanders visited my design research class a couple of years ago, I asked her who she hired in her firm ( I fully expected her to give a list of social science types, but instead was surprised to hear her say she hires product designers. She felt completely confident that they had the skillset she requires. Since Liz is one of the originators of the kind of research that designers find useful (along with Jane Fulton Suri and Lucy Suchman, all three of these women were part of the origins of this sort of research, Liz at RichardsonSmith, and Fulton Suri at IDEO and Suchman at Xerox PARC), I tend to take her word for it.

That said, I like a mix of folks on a project, because the varied points of view and expertise are very valuable. But I do find that, given training in advanced research methods, many of my students (product designers, grad and undergrad) do excellent work in this area.


9 Sam Ladner August 2, 2012 at 9:17 am

Hi Nate,

thanks for posting! Yes, I completely agree with you — designers’ innate ability to empathize is very important. No, I don’t discount this. I think it’s interesting you use the word “knack” which to me is evocative of unstructured, raw material. It is the potential of making something amazing, but only with practice and study. If you have a “knack” for the saxophone, for example, you may enjoy playing it. But to really get good at it, you need to practice. You need to study great saxophonists. You need to reflect on what “school of saxophony” you subscribe to. Maybe you like jazz, but turns out, you really want to take the sax into rock.

This is the difference between a designer with no formal research training and someone who does have formal training (this could be the same person…after a few years of practice and study). Inherent empathy is a wonderful thing. Skilled, reflective practice AND empathy? Priceless.


10 Nate Archer August 2, 2012 at 9:51 am

Great points, which I whole heartedly agree with!

As you mentioned, the restrictions and reality of a live project often force designers into this role. While I agree that social researchers should be the first and best choice, isn’t a half-assed attempt, better than none at all?

You pointed out that even on a limited budget a researcher knows how to maximize the outcomes within constraints, which leads me to think that there is a problem at a higher level.

Just some thoughts, keep up the great posts!


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