A Designer’s Research Manual

The book’s latest edition gives designers an overview of useful research techniques, but doesn’t quite connect its own dots…

book coverWhile design research has been around for decades now, it has only in this century became common practice at many firms. It pops up often in ‘design thinking’ approaches to business and communication strategy, and is common practice for digital UX design, but it is still often a fuzzy subject for many visual designers, particularly those working outside of large agencies.

A Designer’s Research Manual, by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady, was originally published in 2007 with an aim to bridge that gap, and provide designers with accessible, non-intimidating tools with which to conduct research on projects large and small. I recently took a look at the book’s latest edition, updated and expanded from the original to reflect the evolution of current research-based design thinking.

The book begins with a solid introduction, discussing the value of design research and introducing the concepts of user-centered and human-centered design. A brief chapter on the history of design research takes us from Bauhaus user-testing to Henry Dreyfuss’ ergonomic studies to Xerox PARC’s development of the first user-friendly computer interfaces. While only a half-dozen pages, this section effectively demonstrated the value of research through recognizable projects, and built my anticipation for the chapters to follow.

book spreadThe next section, the book’s largest, presents a carefully structured overview of strategies and tactics. Its introduction classifies different research types: quantitative vs. qualitative, formative vs. summative, etc. While I read the book with a basic understanding of these concepts, I appreciated having them explained in design-centric language.

The book goes on to outline 5 core research strategies: Literature Review, Ethnographic Research, Marketing Research, User Experience, and Visual Exploration. Within these, 21 distinct research tactics are enumerated. Most designers will likely have worked with mood boards and sketching; those who engage in digital design will recognize A/B testing, paper prototyping, and user personae. The book goes further to describe techniques that may be less familiar to designers, such as psychographics, contextual inquiry and photo ethnography. Each tactic’s values and benefits are clearly defined, but real-world usage examples are deferred until the book’s final chapter.

I found a wonky pleasure in reading this section, and thought about how I might apply some of these tactics to my current projects… but the book doesn’t provide much to help one get started. Realistically, the more complex research methods discussed here would require a level of rigor – and resources – that make them inaccessible to most independent designers.

The book’s next section focuses on research analysis, and presents several frameworks for organizing, triangulating, and presenting data. One of the book’s most interesting case studies is introduced here, charting the positive and negative aspects of patients’ experience at Veteran’s Administration hospitals, from scheduling their first appointments to follow-up care. It’s a great example of how complex data from observational research, personae, visual anthropology, and other techniques can be compiled and presented in useful ways.

The final third of the book is devoted to more case studies of design research in action. Since the techniques presented earlier were sometimes a little abstract, I was eager to see how designers had used these strategies in real-world design processes.

card sorting

Unfortunately, the authors fail the landing here – each case study incorporates a list of techniques used by its designers, but the connection between research insights and successful design is tangential at best. In one case, a design team travels to Africa to observe life in remote villages, only to create a charity bicycle ride event. Another agency performs a photo-ethnographic study to assess customer perception of a clothing boutique’s storefront, and then touts the store’s online orders as a measure of success. It’s possible that the research in these cases led to the design solutions, but it’s up to the reader to interpolate this.

In the few cases where the research is shown to directly influence design, the findings often seem obvious. A Hallmark card line for Millennials is built upon research that shows them as “the largest users of social networking,” “trend-forward”, and “seeking value.” Another study reveals that prospective art-school students perceive of themselves as curious, passionate, and individualistic – well, don’t we all?

Reading these stories, one could easily get the impression that research isn’t actually that useful for designers, but is more of a selling point for firms aiming to appeal to strategy-oriented clients. I’d hoped for an example where research led to counter-intuitive insights that inspired truly innovative designs; instead, the case studies seemed to be largely about confirming assumptions.

double diamond

Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy reading A Designer’s Research Manual. The work the authors set out to do here is worthwhile; there’s value in simply cataloging these techniques, and I can see myself referencing the book for future projects. Having a better understanding of research strategies can help designers communicate the business value of their work to their clients more effectively.

But I suspect that I’d need to bring in outside resources in order to complete many of the research tactics described here. While I have a better understanding of them from having read the book, I’d hoped to feel more empowered to engage in research myself – instead, I was left thinking that proper design research may be best left to the marketers.

A Designer’s Research Manual

Second Edition, Updated + Expanded
by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady
208 Pages. Rockport Publishers, 2017

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