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Design research: sorting your shoe walking from your talk talking

7 April, 2012

Collage of field research

We’re currently doing field research for a pretty cool project and client – it’s government so I can’t share too much. But it’s government that potentially touches everyone and they effectively want that touch to be a gentle shoulder pat, not a punch (even though the current design represents more of a wave from the other side of the street). So to speak.

Anyways, it’s prompted me record my thinking about designing the research activity itself (there’s a whole other post about empathy). This post is specifically about ethnographically-based, or field research, and specifically in-depth interviews. I have a love/not-love relationship with field research because I know, KNOW! the best data and insights about people’s experience comes directly from talking with the people themselves. People are the experts of their own lives. But I don’t think designers are researchers. The research itself is a means to an end – it informs decisions – doesn’t make them. The outcome sought from the research is understanding in order to design from that understanding (as opposed to researchers whose outcome ends at the analysis of the research findings).

  • The love part is how sweet it is when you start getting good information and insights and you’re excited about the emerging possibilities for a solution. It’s is meeting all kinds of different people (although I maintain after 10 people you rarely get new insights – just putting that one out there). It’s also the traveling to different parts of the country and often realising how beautiful it is. New Zealand, I’m looking at you. Australia, I’m only just discovering you.
  • The not-love part is the initial stages when you’re not sure your approach is right (even when you’ve piloted it and it worked). It’s the time it takes to get into the rhythm of interviewing. And preparing and noting all the (necessary) paperwork.

I cut my teeth in design on some deep and long research studies. When I think back to 2004 when I first went out with a small team and spoke to people about who they were so we could understand them in relation to the Agency I worked for we seemingly had months. Luxury! Because I had such an excellent schooling in the approach (initially via Leslie Tergas, IIT ID alum), I consider field research a specialisation within the design discipline. That’s because it’s not just a conversation, it’s not just creating activities someone can do to help elicit information in different ways. It’s all those things plus what you’re going to do with, and how you’re going to use, that information.

My Approach to Design Research Design

My basic construct for research – separate to the myriad of appropriate rigor in terms of documentation, protocols, and useful artefacts you create along the way – is broadly as follows:

  • What do we know: from background research, from stakeholder engagement, about the user experience (think|do|use), about the service?
  • What is the research task: contextual, generative, or evaluative?
  • Why are we researching: to drive, inspire, inform?
  • What don’t we know: from all of the above
  • How could we find it out: approaches, techniques, games, [insert creative invention here]
  • Who from (and how can we find them): recruitment gurus please apply here
  • What will we do with what we discover: analysis/synthesis/prototyping iteration starts with the thinking here

There is no cut-and-paste approach to research. In fact, it is at this point that I’d say there is a wonderful opportunity for designers to indulge in innovative techniques, approaches and musing amongst themselves. An opportunity to take some time and space to answer the above questions with modicum of selfishly-creatively ‘designerliness’ (because for the rest of the time we must be collaborative and engaging).

But in terms of research types and sources this table is a useful reference for working out the research task. I can’t tell you if it has an original source because I’ve adapted the content so many times for different contexts but I believe Cheskin may have something to do with it.

Type Contextual Generative Evaluative
Data to help uncover: Business context – mapping of customers world, processes and users Unmet needs, discover new opportunities, stimulate creativity Effectiveness, optimise design,assess business potential
Research methods: Market research, PEST, Trends, Demographics Qualitative, Quantitative, Ethno-based, Participatory Qualitative, Quantitative, Evolving and validation design concepts, User testing, usability testing, user acceptance testing


  • Do I think you need to do research for every design project? Yes.
  • Ethno-based every time? No. (But do background research – every time). If you do it right and create meaningful artefacts – like experience maps, typologies, and other frameworks and prototypes, you should be able to use them to design services into the future. Until you can no longer answer the question ‘Do we know the user experience?’
  • Do I think this is the most overused collection of words in relation to research:

“To really understand people you have to walk a mile in their shoes. That means you have to take yours off first.”

  • Yes. In reality, when you go out and speak to people you need to think of them as Imelda Marcus – for they wear many shoes. And you need to find and walk in the right ones. But you need to wear your ones when you design. Your shoes matter too.

If you want more thinking on design research try these:

There are other bibliographies of Design Research – but, to be frank, I don’t look at any. I seek and find when I need to ; ) Happy for any comments to leave their favourite links.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 April, 2012 8:54 am

    Nice post Mel. I agree with the statement that design research is necessary for every design project. Question the statement that ethno-based research is not necessary every time. To what extent can you truly understand the user experience, and therefore design maximally effective solutions, without going out into the field and engaging with it?

    • 12 April, 2012 11:14 am

      Thanks for your comments Matt. Depending on the project and what the research task is (to drive, inspire, inform) I stand behind that statement. I base that in part on our own shared experience with the SMEs research we did where we were able to re-use the findings for subsequent projects associated with the original intent. I think if one can answer the question ‘what do we know’ and answer honestly in regards to experience (think|do|use) then new ethno-based research is not always required.


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