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.
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.