About doing research in a design context…

by Dries De Roeck on July 17, 2018

Disclaimer: I never thought I would write the post you’re about to read. I still don’t feel confident to engage in this debate or discussion. Nevertheless it has been on my mind for way too long, so I might as well give it a go …

This is a reply/follow up post to a somewhat aged twitter conversation earlier this year. I guess I’m now finally taking or finding the time to write down some reflections of mine around the topic of ‘design research’ and the relevancy of ‘focus groups’.

This all started with two (linked) medium posts by Mule Design studio:

I recall that I was very triggered, and perhaps a little offended, by the way @bosmet shared the article initially. It was nice to see @davidgeerts join the conversation, adding some comments from his perspective too. Do note, I ever experienced these comments as a problem in any way, Bo and David are just very good at asking critical questions that have seriously forced me to adjust my own thinking before.

The spark – summarised

First of all, the posts that sparked these conversations are not new at all, they date back to 2014 and 2016 respectively. The points made are, however, discussion topics that surface every so often in design projects – both between colleagues and between clients.

Core to the posts by Mule Design is stressing to conduct user or stakeholder research activities in context. By putting people together in an office meeting room and having them talk to each other about a topic won’t get you anywhere. In the periphery, some critisism is expressed towards doing research in a design setting. We should be wary of not doing research for the sake of research, but always have the larger picture in mind. The point is made that, in fact, we shouldn’t be questioning the ‘relevancy’ of doing research in a design context – as it should in fact be an integral part of it by default.

Some thoughts

Before ranting on, let’s be clear about one thing. I very much believe people in design and development should be talking and immersing themselves in the context of their users or related stakeholders as much as possible. And I would argue that any kind of contact with stakeholders, whether it is on the street or in a sterile meeting room is better compared to no contact at all.

What probably troubles me mostly about the article that sparked the converstation on twitter and this little ranty post, is that it is easy to talk crap about a ‘method’ like focus groups, to talk crap about research and to glorify the greatness of the all inclusive design profession. I get very agitated when people tell me stories about talking to users and they didn’t get anything out of it. In my opinion, if your plan was to get anything out of it in the first place – you’re doing it wrong. The reason you’re engaging with stakeholders is to find inspiration, to look at something from another point of view or maybe just to have a good chat with someone you would otherwise never talk to. From that respect, a stakeholder involvement activity always results in something (thanks @jurgentanghe for this reflection).

Another something that troubles me is the obsession with labelling ‘activities’. When naming something ‘focus group’ the social scientist in the room might have a very different idea about compared to the engineer in the room. (imagine, a social scientist and an engineer in the same room – ohnoes </sarcasm>). To me, I (relatively) do not care if what you do is a focus group, a diary study, a cultural probe, a creative session, a questionnaire, an empathy building excersise, an interview, a structured interview, a prototype test, a usability test, a user experience test, a collaborative design session, or whatever label you like to use. Obviously it makes sense to have these labels in textbooks and stick to them in education and be able to link to them when writing up – for instance – an academic paper. People in design practice, however, should imo be able to bend and stretch these labels in order to fit a project context better.

The crux in all of this is when doing ‘research’ activities, people in design practice should primarily be concerned with knowing what they want to understand better, where the unknown issues lie, and then figure out in which way that knowledge can be uncovered. I think it is part of the design profession to be able to make that translation, to be creative in combining textbook examples of stakeholder involvement methods and by doing so moving towards a more informed design process.

I realise that I might have mixed up ‘research’ with ‘stakeholder involvement’ above. Obviously stakeholder invovlement is just one type of research in a design process. Nevertheless, I think in general the same points apply to any kind of research activity which takes place as part of the design process.

“Stakeholder involvement never got me anywhere, it’s time I could have spent on actually making stuff.”

If you expect user involvement activities to direct or guide the outcomes of your design process, I can accept and follow the above statement. I also believe that exactly that point is where a lot of issues are to be discussed. Involving stakeholders is about understanding contexts of use (as Frouke Sleeswijk Visser wrote about so many years ago), approach and view a situation from a different point of view and developing a different relation with the target audience(s) being addressed.

So, and this has been said by many others before as well, conciously thinking about research in a design process is something you either go all in on or don’t do it at all. If you keep questioning the value of doing a stakeholder involvement activity, or if the focus remains on what you might or might not get out of it, it might be better to just stop debating about it. Increasingly often, when this topic emerges in conversation, I choose to stop justifying. I increasingly think it’s a total waste of energy to try to convice people to conciously do research activities in a design process. Some years ago, I reworked the ‘believe in process‘ poster – which I think still covers the message to be told quite fully.

When not (conciously) doing user invovlement activities as part of the design process, chances are very real you’ll get to the same end result as if you would have done it. Chances are evenly real that, in the end, you did involve stakeholders and you did do research activities – you just didn’t experience them as a separate activity.

It’s all been said before, Dries. This has become a boring conversation. You’re just repeating and preaching to the choir.

Yes, that’s a large part of my frustration. The conversation on whether a focus group is valid or not is probably not the conversation we should be having anymore, but it does seem to come back every so often – so I guess it can be a good cornerstone to keep alive. In the May-June edition of interactions magazine, Jon Kolko wrote an article on that other elephant in the room ‘design thinking’. One of the better statements from that article that somewhat summarises my above ramblings:

To work this way, designers need humility. In a participatory, inclusive, and democratic environment, a designer can’t be construed as the “person with the answer.” Instead, they are a guide or facilitator, one helping apply a foreign creative process.

What I like about that quote, are the first four words of it. ‘To work this way’ tells me that this is not the only way to work. I think we should not expect people in design to work in a participatory way by default, we should not expect designers to be the ones with the lego bricks and the sticky notes, we should not expect designers to be the ones critisising line width or font choice.

Linking this back to the starting point of this post, I could conclude stating:

“When prejudices about what the expected outcome of a stakeholder involvement research acitivity are ditched – only then the research inclusive design process can start to shine.”

One comment

Hi Dries, I finally got round to formulating a response to your post. As there are many thoughts and ideas in there, many of which I agree with (the relevancy of research and stakeholder involvement obviously), I would just like to pick out some sentences or ideas that I would like to challenge. I hope I don’t take them too much out of context, and that it doesn’t come across as overly critical. As I said, I mostly agree with what you’re saying.

What I find a dangerous statement is “I would argue that any kind of contact with stakeholders, whether it is on the street or in a sterile meeting room is better compared to no contact at all.” There are plenty of examples of the latter resulting in bad ideas being supported or good ideas shot down in, yes, focus groups, that turned out quite differently when being tested in the field. I think that is the biggest danger of focus groups, that false sense of security you get, because you can say you talked to users, and you don’t need to actually talk to or observe users in context. So I would argue that contact with stakeholders is indeed crucial, but it needs to be done well.

Then there is the importance of labels: I’m not sure what you mean with “bending and stretching the labels to fit a project context better”. Maybe I don’t realise the need for bending labels. When I hear someone say they did a focus group but actually they used a lot of creative methods, then I would say they did a co-design workshop. Does it matter? I think it does, as when the details are left out, you base yourself on what the ‘textbook’ definition of focus groups is. In the end, the result for the design team is maybe what matters, but those that only see the label and the result, and not the process, can get the wrong idea about what a focus group can lead to. Moreover, it complicates the whole discussion about which methods can/should be used for which purpose. So I think labels do matter, not as much as what is actually being done, but enough to warrant a proper use of them – and not just in textbooks, classrooms or academic papers.

Finally, and to end on a positive note, I think focus groups, depending on how you conduct them, can have a place in a larger human-centered design process, if complemented with other research methods involving stakeholders that can confirm, refute or expand the findings. Just like (quantitative) surveys on their own are not very useful in a design process, unless they are part of a process including other (qualitative but also quantitative) techniques. And of course, no method should be used in isolation when designing.

I hope this makes sense, and is a constructive contribution to this ongoing debate 🙂

by David Geerts on July 27, 2018 at 4:47 pm. #

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