Some Guidelines for Design Research

In a world in with so many interesting, useful and innovative products and services to choose from, it still seems all too common for people to go through life spending money, time and energy on things that don’t make a whole lot of sense. 

Most of you can probably think of at least one moment in recent memory in which something about a product or service felt off, leaving more to be desired. There might have been a tool you were using that didn’t function easily, an app on your phone that was missing a necessary feature, a 1-800 menu that was difficult to navigate, or a government policy that didn’t seem to be based on reality. In this moment, you probably thought to yourself, “Who came up with this idea?!” or “Why did they do it this way?!”, or felt frustrated or defeated. On the flipside, you can also probably think of at least one instance in the past week in which you were pleasantly surprised at how something facilitated a fun, simple, convenient, and positively memorable experience that left you saying “wow!”  

People sometimes blame crappy design on themselves because they think they have some innate deficit or inability that prevents them from being “smart enough” to use it correctly, when in fact that product or service could have been designed better in the first place rather than make people feel inadequate. Take my grandmother, for example, who thinks she’s “too old” to use modern technology. This perception limits her interaction with the outside world because she doesn’t think there’s anything out there that’s easy to understand, use, and benefit from in her life. Others feel powerless or limited in their options, like the busy mom I interviewed about her refrigerator. Even though she loved the way it looked in her remodeled kitchen, it didn’t quite work for her family’s lifestyle and storage needs, and gave her a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

Humans, as inventors of things and generators of ideas, are inherently flawed individuals, which means that there’s a chance that the stuff they create is also going to be flawed in some way. But smart companies can manage that risk by incorporating human-centered research when coming up with new ideas or improving existing ones. This means putting in the effort and resources at all stages of the innovation process to understand people’s realities through observation, empathy, and engagement. It means gathering data on needs and desires, using insights to design a prototype, and testing and re-testing that prototype until the target audience is satisfied with the result, rather than relying on what “feels right” to “experts” in a particular category or industry.

The best user experience is the one that lets people go on with their lives without having to think too hard or work too hard to accomplish their goals; they are meaningful, relevant, and satisfying. And doing design research is not only good for users and consumers, but for businesses that want to increase confidence in strategic decision-making. This is because good great experiences with products and services lead to happy and loyal customers, which leads to happy, profitable enterprises.  

Here are a few guidelines that I like to keep in mind in order to facilitate successful design research:  

  1. Design with people in mind, not users or consumers.
  2. Actually care about what people have to say, and advocate tirelessly for their needs.
  3. Emotional drivers are important, but you cannot ignore culture.
  4. Get out of the research facility if at all possible; in-context discovery has its benefits.
  5. Make sure you understand your client’s goals, both long-term and immediate.
  6. Mixed-methods projects and triangulation are optimal (= more confidence in results).
  7. An iterative research process is ideal (always trying to improve and refine)
  8. Doing design research is a win-win situation for both people and businesses.

What guidelines for design research would you add to this list?

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