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What good is design research?

Usability guru Don Norman raises some provocative questions about the value of design research for understanding user needs. Is it really not useful for creating breakthrough innovations?

A recent article by Don Norman brings up some valuable and provocative questions about the value of design research. I read it as an extension of his previous shift in thinking about the value of usability analysis, where he concluded that it was vital for good to design, but it didn't lead to great design. In this new article he argues that design research has not led to breakthrough innovations or products, but is better suited for improving existing products and technologies.

I actually agree with much of what he says, though I see the definition of design research he's using as overly narrow. More on that in a moment.

He starts the article with:

I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. I reached this conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small, continual improvements. Call one conceptual breakthrough, the other incremental. Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen.

He then goes on to list a number of breakthrough products (actually categories of products) that design research didn't have a hand in:

  • The Airplane
  • The Automobile
  • The Telephone
  • The Radio
  • The Television
  • The Computer
  • The Personal Computer
  • The Internet
  • SMS Text Messaging
  • The Cellphone

Design research did not exist in its current form when any of these technologies or products came about, so of course it did not have a hand in their development. However, the reason these ones took off was because someone recognized a user need, and shaped the technologies to address that need, adjusting the form of the technologies as the need evolved. So it was not formal design research, but it certainly was an attentiveness to understanding how the technology would be used, which is a key element of design research.

Invention and Innovation

We have to be careful about distinguishing between technological invention and innovation. Technologies are invented all the time, many of which--as Don notes--are not immediately very useful, and that need refinement before they can become appealing to the mass market. This is often where innovation plays a role, and where design research can help shape the rough technology into something that people will actually want and be able to use. I don't see any shame in design research not being present at the moment of invention--it still has a valuable role to play.

Design research takes place when design happens, and design is a downstream activity from scientific and technology invention. So it's not surprising that it has not launched new-to-the-world technologies. Could it do so in the future? Sure, it's early days yet. To have that kind of impact it would need to move more upstream, and to an extent that process is already underway.

But I do agree with Don's basic point that gaining a deep understanding of user needs does not in and of itself necessarily lead to a reframing of a technology or a business problem. This touches on something that we have been talking about a lot at frog recently--the pendulum has swung so much toward doing user research that we (as a profession) risk losing the magic that comes from conceptual thinking. The seductiveness of evidence and insight that comes from design research can push inspiration, intuition, hypotheses, hunches and nonlinear thinking to the sidelines. Analysis overwhelms creativity.

Good design researchers are keenly aware of this of course, and seek to provide the appropriate balance for each project, making analysis and inspiration as sparring partners. An unscientific survey of colleagues and blog posts indicates that others are recognizing the issue and working to push the pendulum back the other way to a more balanced position.

Design research is not (just) user research

This brings me to my last point, one where I do have a disagreement with how Don sets up the article: he equates design research with user research.

Design research has many definitions, but within the product cycle, it consists of studies aiming to understand the activities, desires, and needs of the people for whom a product or service is desired. Design researchers use a wide variety of methods, but all of them, whether it be ethnographic observations, systematic probes, or even surveys, questionnaires, and focus groups aim at one thing: to determine those hidden, unspoken needs that will lead to a novel innovation and then to great success in the marketplace.

This is a very typical definition, but one that I reject. Design research can be, and should be, much more than user research. It should include research into technologies, brands, macro trends, retail settings, competitors and comparatives, and a company's own IP and capabilities. In my book I refer to this as multivector research--where we examine multiple vectors of data types simultaneously, and seek insights by finding the patterns across the vectors, not just within a single vector (e.g. user research).

As every design researcher knows, users can be myopic in their expression of needs, and we do everything we can to get at the underlying needs. If we expand our vision to include these other vectors then they can give us a better view into needs and--importantly--opportunities, than going by user needs alone.

Design is not solely about creating products that users want--design, like politics, must balance many requirements. Users are of course a very important stakeholder in those requirements, but designers are tasked with also working with the requirements of engineering, manufacturing, brand, technologies, costs, etc. Likewise, design research does itself a disservice if it only looks at user needs--its scope needs to match that of design itself.

Related articles

Don Norman's article

Steve Portigal response