Cris Cristina // March 27 2017

Research is the engine for design

The rocket engines for Space X’s Falcon 9 vehicle provide over 7,500 kN of thrust and are capable of lifting 50,000 lb of payload into orbit. That’s about the weight of one football team’s tour bus with the team inside. That’s some heavy lifting. Good research can elevate product design in a similar fashion. Research helps designers understand the who, the what, the why, and the environmental context in which people experience their world.

Today we are living in the age of design. Historically, there’s never been more awareness about the value of design. From “Star Trek” to “Minority Report” to “Her”, it’s a recurring pop culture thread. I’m not complaining about the attention. As global lead for user experience design at Ixonos, it’s my job to champion design. I build techniques, tools, and processes to help our designers and the company push state-of-the-practice work for our clients. The heightened awareness makes my job easier, but it hasn’t always been this way.

In the late 1940’s and early 50’s, the U.S. military was crashing a lot of planes with a hot new technology called a jet engine. The project managers and bigwigs all debated what caused the crashes. Some of them blamed the manufacturers and suppliers for faulty parts. Some blamed the aeronautical engineers for designing planes that didn’t fly well. Some blamed the pilots for not being smart enough to figure out how to fly the new planes.


Test pilot in experimental jet, Photo by NASA


Turns out it was none of those things. A couple of bright psychologists conducted an investigation and figured out the main causal factors contributing to the accidents were the information and layout of the flight controls and displays. That cockpit research, along with a new, applied understanding of anthropometry (study of physical measurements of the human body), marked a turning point in building machines. It’s when we started designing technology for humans rather than the other way around. Fast forward a few years and there aren’t many companies left that are arguing about the value of design anymore.


Interior cockpit of experimental jet, Photo by Erick Long, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution


In the last twenty years or so of digital products, there’s been a broad trend in building design awareness from the concrete to the abstract. The first stage started with a focus on industrial design — things we could physically manipulate, like the iPod. In the second stage we moved on to the digital interface — interfaces with a direct connection to human sensory perception. Google’s Material Design for mobile, wearables, virtual reality, ambient environments, et al. is a good example of how broadly impactful user interfaces have become. Now we’re starting to see a third stage as a rise in perceived value of information architecture — behind the scenes organization of the interface — especially as experiences are increasingly imagined across multiple platforms, communities, and locations. Just imagine how complex was to build for all of its user populations: patients, caregivers, hospitals, insurance companies, government agencies, etc.

Product teams are starting to care more and more about the quality and breadth of the design process on all levels of the organization. Yet as good as design is these days, we’re not quite where we need to be. From the discipline’s origins of scratching the surface with buttons and dials to peering deeper into the digital interfaces and structure that shapes a person’s experience, we haven’t probed the core of what truly accelerates design — research. It is the fourth stage accelerant for design.


Rocketship of design


What do I mean when I talk about research? I’m referring to two bigger buckets of research — design research and user research. I loosely define design research as all the investigation that happens prior to building. It’s researching the competition, sketching out little bits of ideas, reviewing existing patterns, collating designs that inspire. As for user research, I like’s definition: “understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies.” It can include anything from interviews to usability tests to A-B testing. Good design uses both types of research. Research boosts design by providing the stabilizers to keep designers on a real world track, from both technological and human perspectives. Research not only keeps design in check — are we designing with the right components, for the right people? — but it propels the design in new and interesting directions. Good research doesn’t just validate design. It opens up new designs based on found needs.

Collectively, while we do use research to propel design processes forward, we’ve yet to leverage its full power. Why don’t we see more research in design now? The main challenge of adopting more research is adapting our existing processes. We try to make our product teams more and more agile. Yet I hear those same teams say all the time they don’t have time for research. Stranger yet, I often hear product teams state that lean startup methods prevent the need for research because you can just get to market faster. Lean methods aren’t meant to cause blunt force trauma to team processes. They scalpel the efforts across the board, including research and design. Design efforts aren’t eliminated — just revamped to shorter timeframes and “dirtier” techniques. In fact, lean methods like Jake Knapp’s five day sprint scaffold the design process with user research in a way that’s more accessible than ever.

It’s exciting to review the history of the impact of design and watch perspectives shift. I’m excited to see further investment and growth in user research in the next few years as it becomes more widely accepted as an important part of the design process. In that spirit, here are a couple of quick tips to help you and your team integrate more research in your product team.


Don’t do these things

1. Don’t waste your participants’ or your own time.
Even if you’re just walking out the door to stop people in the streets for feedback, make a plan. What assumptions are most important to test? What are the best questions or tasks to help you test those assumptions? Have a plan to synthesize and feed your results back to the team.

2. Don’t do research you aren’t going to use.
If you don’t have time to review the results, or if the team is never going to see the output, wait for a better opportunity. There’s limited value, and certainly low perceived value unless you have a chance to show the impact of the research on the product.

3. Don’t self-fulfill your own prophecy.
If you don’t have an experienced researcher available, the most important thing to keep in mind is to not ask leading questions. It’s ok to have an idea of what you’ll learn. In fact, it’s great practice to list out your assumptions to test. This is your chance to listen and get nearly free on-the-ball and off-the-wall ideas about your product. Be inquisitory and don’t hold your ideas close.


User research, street intercept, Original video by Alcoholicks


Do these things

1. Talk to people.
Try to get as close to your estimated target user as possible. It doesn’t have to be exact, but keep in mind that talking to people who have a different life experience than yours can give you a broader view and mitigate product risk. Get outside your product team and get outside your building!

2. Rename the research phase.
If you want to do more research and can’t quite get the buy-in from your stakeholder, just call it something else. Exploration, concept development, competitive analysis, etc. A rose by any other name and all that. You can also play with the timing. If your team can’t swing the time for a particular release, add it to the end so that you’re going into the following design cycle with a great set of information.

3. Get down and dirty with guerrilla usability.
If you’re doing agile-ish work, your timelines are likely tight to integrate usability testing. Prototype tools are adding Sketch integrations, from InVision (with or without Silver Flow) to to Principle, just to name a few. Better yet, break out some paper prototypes and get even more flexibility to put your idea in front of people. Tangible exposure to users drives the whole product team to think about real people rather than abstract ones.

If we do good, quality research up front, we’ll build better designs, which means better experiences. Doing the bigger picture research allows us to find the right product market fit, which in turn allows us to create the right product at the right time for the right user. This is where the big product breakthroughs are made. Just don’t mistake research for design. Research is the engine, not the pilot. I am writing this from a designer’s point of view, after all. Can’t write myself out of a job.

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