October 30, 2011

Ask Design B*tch

Why does research so often fail design?

Author: Terry Lee Stone

Q. Dear Design B*tch my clients are always handing me these big fat decks of data that they call "research." A lot of this stuff simply isn't helpful, but they've spent a bunch of money on it, and they expect me to use it. How do I articulate why this stuff often fails to hit the mark so we can do it better?


All research is not created equal. If a designer has studied the people who are being targeted by the design they are creating, they can better tailor their efforts to the audience's needs and preferences. Knowing people is what helps designers find those tiny inspirations that become significant insights later on in the process of developing distinct and innovative design solutions. It just makes sense to understand as much as you can about context before you begin to design, right?

The Design Research Society, the multidisciplinary international society for the design research community worldwide, founded in the UK in 1966, describes communication design as both "scientific and humanistic," two very contradictory forces. Because of this, designers need to observe carefully how people behave, interpret the reasons and meaning for this behavior, and either recreate or reinvent it for their clients in order to get the desired result. Research simply makes designers better at what they do.

Like everything else about the design process, it's essential to plan and execute research studies properly to ensure good results. Sometimes that's not entirely possible. In that case, failure, or less than optimum results, are obtained and we all know what that leads to—mistaken analysis and unapproved designs.

Some common mistakes that lead to poor research:

Lack of clarity: Figure out what information you need to know up front. Any additional information uncovered becomes a bonus.

Wrong subjects: Know who the target audience is for your client. Make sure to conduct research with people who fall within this description. Use a variety of segmentation concepts to further understand target audiences.

Bad instrument: Ask the right questions using the best research method in order to yield information that actually matters. The best research for design is a combination of sociology, psychology, anthropology and statistics.

Dubious sources: When leveraging secondary or existing research, make sure the information comes from credible, verifiable sources. Double check or filter dated or biased material.

Limited information: Make sure the research is thorough and not random or insufficient to draw good conclusions. Verify data by looking at several sources of information.

Most of the time, research failure means not having done it all in the first place. Of course, ignoring it either selectively or entirely once it's done is another giant cause of research failure.

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Disclaimer: The general information in this column is not a substitute for personalized advice from an attorney, an insurance agent or an accountant. If you have questions regarding legal, financial or risk management issues, you should seek the services of an appropriate professional.