“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Design Research != User Research

All the world today is in a panic about “Innovation” and how “Design Thinking” is the cure all for all of business woas; especially those businesses trying to stay afloat in this rapid idea reproduction economy. I think this is GREAT! I believe that design thinking as a description of the types of activities that designers have traditionally done in order to be successful within their micro-tasks can add value towards success of thinking larger and broader across many areas of a problem set.

Ok, so what’s the problem? What’s the problem is that within certain affinity groups of the UX community (IA, HCI, Usability–those groups most distant from formal design training) there has been a great evangelical effort push those like presentation designers (e.g. visual design and industrial design) and engineers into the fold of the important work of user research. (Make sure you read the word important, as I don’t want to be seen as dissin’ user research.) But in so doing, they have squelched out almost any other type of research from the community discussion.

Now it makes sense that those who do user research are most comfortable speaking about user research so why should they discuss anything else, but the rest of the community is also silent (at least in the UX community). There have been whispers about design vision. This is important work as it brings to the fore that design is about emotion as much as about utility.

First, let’s understand what is important about user research. More than anything else, user research when applied properly gives designers insights into the context of use of the products and systems that designers will be designing for. It also functions as a guide to the overall success users will have with a design.

That is good. There are elements here which do guide designers towards idea generation and aide in the creative process. User research adds more data points allowing a designer to gain more empathy with the human beings that will be hopefully engaging the designs they design.

Usability Testing–a popular form of user research–teaches us that it we need something in order to evaluate its success. Ideas by themselves are not testable, as they exist in a plain of existance that is too ephemeral, intangible, and well, inconsequential. But that is not just true for user testing. It is also true for all types of research. Research requires experimentation and what designers do very well, is experiment–quickly, methodicly and creatively. Twist, scew, discolor, elong, burn, degrade, fade, crop, chop, re-align, scatter, disolve, etc. etc.

When I was on a panel at the IA Summit last year regarding wireframing techniques, I asked the question, “How many people do 5 or more different ideations of their designs at any phase of their projects?” There were FIVE people who raised their hands in an audience of about 250 or so. FIVE!!!!

How can you come up with good design ideas, if you don’t ever give yourself the opportunity to let ideas flow and be explored? If we constantly shut down an idea in our mind, and don’t take it a bit further, we’ll never get to the nuggets that really make an impact. We’ll constantly be in evaluation mode, and the only things we can evaluate against is what already exists–to my point above.

So my point is that Design Research is really about using our best weapon–our creativity–and researching the ideas that flow from it. If Iwas to take the process further, I would suggest that going out to users without a design concept is not a form of design research at all, but a form of market research. Now of course this could be semantic twiddling, but people who know me, know that I am a semantaholic.

What I do know is that design exploration as a form of design research is not commonly spoken about in the halls of UX-dom and that I believe if the UX community of practitioners want to make a real difference, we need to be incorporating design exploration into our formal methodologies as an important piece of design research, without which we will be relegated to “sitemaps & wireframes”.

I know to some of the people who read this blog, this might all seem, like “Duh!”, but I bet that you were either trained in a Design School, have some other fine arts degree, or worked in a design studio environment of some kind. And if you are, maybe you take all this for granted, but as someone who had to come to all this informally and in isolation, I would encourage you to share with the UX community what you have learned and gained in Design School, or through Studio living. I really appreciated David Armano’s contribution to this discourse with is blog posting aptly titled, “What I learned in D-School”.

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