Breakthroughs Recap: Design Research

Henry Dreyfuss is the first designer who came to mind when I started thinking about design research inspiration for our June 2012 “Breakthroughs” webinar with Lokion Interactive vice president of interaction design Shiloh Barnat and Adobe expert Sharma Hendel. But there are many other sources.

I love the work of IDEO and use their amazing Human-Centered Design Toolkit when introducing students to design research. I’ve also found inspiration via academic institutions such as Stanford University’s d.School and this great video on user interview techniques from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Rosenfeld Media also has great literature on design research; you’ll learn a lot by reading Indi Young's Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior. If you ever have a chance to take one of her seminars, I highly recommend it.

There are a couple of analogies I like to use when articulating design research as a framework. One—as mentioned during the webinar—is by using theatrical metaphors. Contextual inquiry and mental models provide the stage and backdrop, users are like actors, and stories and scenarios are the script. But another good way to frame design research is through a journalistic lens: design, like journalism, is about telling stories, and designers, like journalists, are looking for the Five W’s and One H: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Who are these people we’re designing for? Where are they from? Where will they be using our designs? When will they be using them? Why and how? Design research aims to answer these questions.

Shiloh presented various methods for doing this: Contextual Inquiry and User Interviews provide robust, personalized information about human desires and behavior around a specific activity, lending insight into the entire research process;  Personas and Mental Models bring information and data gleaned from interviews to life, telling us “Who” by putting faces and names to users. Stories + Scenarios provide the What, When, Where, Why, and How, detailing the necessary context in which products are used. Experience Maps bring all of these elements together over time, providing designers a succinct model of the entire user experience involving a product, from touchpoint to touchpoint.

For those who asked how to build design research skills, there are ways to take any of these tools and apply them to civic projects. Getting involved with Code for America or AIGA’s Design for Good program would be good places to start. I would also recommend looking at continuing education programs at local universities or community colleges that focus on design research skills. For example, my alma mater, the University of Washington in Seattle, offers a User-Centered Design certificate program.

Our webinar was only an hour though, and design research is a broad topic. There are many other design research strategies, philosophies and methodologies to explore. To get you started, we compiled a list of resources for you. Happy reading! 


Resources online

About the Author: Callie Neylan is an Assistant Professor of design at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) in Baltimore, Maryland. She is interested in interaction design, the urban space, and designing for the disabled. She writes about design and technology for AIGA and and tweets via @neylano.