Common misconceptions about design research

Last week I gave a two-days workshop about design research. It was part of a week-long seminar aimed at masters students from the two local design schools (HEAD–Genève and ECAL). We went through a quite intense set of activities ranging from lectures to drawing sessions, visit to the library, long arguments and exquisite corpse-like activities. My first objective was to describe what design research is, and the second to help students come up with "the research question", which looks like a Holy Grail for lots of them. We had various conversations about what research is, and how it's related to design. In doing so, lots of issues bubbled up to the surface and it was strikingly intriguing to list them. I took some notes about these and I turned it into a short presentation about the misconceptions about design research.

  1. Design research is what's produced when you don't have a client. It's personal project Well, this was a common perspective offered by students at the beginning. As we discussed, it seems that the way "research" is used in some of the participants' background lead them to think that we do research only when there's no problem to solve, no brief from a client. Research, in the academic sense, is about generating knowledge. What does it mean in a design context? Well, this quote by Bruce Archer express differently: “Design Research is a systematic search for and acquisition of knowledge related to design and design activity.” It's also a misconception because research projects are not done in a vacuum: there's a need to refer to the existing knowledge produced by other researchers, and funding bodies definitely influence what they want to fund. Also research can be "personal" but in general there's more than one person involved (colleagues, research partners...).
  2. Design research is what you do before designing a prototype, like user research for instance. The problem here is that design research is not limited to field research/ethnography. A relevant model to consider here is the one described by Christopher Frayling with the famous trichotomy of research about (e.g. history of design), for (e.g. ethnography to surface insights for design), and through design (discovering new insights/building theories based on artifact design). Design research corresponds to these three elements, but the third one is the most important... because of the relationship between theory and practice... which leads us to the third misconception:
  3. Design leads to artifacts (products) it doesn't produce theories. Yes, design produces artifacts but it doesn't mean that you cannot derive/generate theoretical insights based on this. The way objects are used, produced, repurposed can offer various perspectives that can be turned into different levels of theories, as showed by this quote from Alain Findeli: "due to his/her involvement in the object, the researcher will raise new questions, discover new approaches, and if he/she has talent, produce new theoretical models. I propose to call this method project-driven research". To discuss what it means practically, we used "Strong Concepts: Intermediate-Level Knowledge in Interaction Design Research" by Höök and Löwgren to discuss this. The paper describes a spectrum of knowledge one can abstract from particular design instances.
  4. Design research produces bad design. What designers express with this is their disappointment when they see the outcome of design research projects: artifacts which are not in line with the Zeitgeist or with tacit design criteria; and of course it's also related with certain fonts used on researchers slides, the lack of attention to certain graphic details (someone in class wondered about the 2-columns ACM template) and, above all, the fact that artifacts they see do not correspond to their level of expectations as designers (regardless of the theoretical insights produced). That's a good one as it's not so much of a misconception. There's indeed a lot of bad design outputs in design research and the community needs to do better. However, there are lots of exceptions to this and, the fact that artifacts produced by design researchers are bad does not mean that one cannot do better! As examples, we looked at various cases: Auger-Loizeau's Carnivorous Robots, Fabian Hemmert's work, as well as our own Curious Rituals.

Why do I blog this? Nothing better than a skeptical audience to learn how to frame your research topic/contribution. This seminar was highly stimulating. Plus, these misconceptions are interesting not only because there's a need to correct then. Most of them reveal how research is normative and it's sometimes good to push the boundaries a little bit!