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Designing for Interaction: Design Research

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If only a small bit of the typical time, money, and resources used to make and market a product or service were put towards design research—observing, talking to, and maybe even making artifacts with customers and users—the products and services we use would be greatly improved. Dan Saffer explains.
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Imagine a zoo where the zookeepers don't know anything about animals, and they don't bother to find out about the animals' natural habitat, dietary needs, or natural predators. The zookeepers keep the animals in metal cages, group the animals randomly together, and feed them whatever they have around. Now imagine the chaos that ensues and the unhappy (or worse: sick or dead) animals that would be the result. Not the type of place you'd want to take your kids to.

Our fictional zoo is the state of a lot of the products and services today, albeit not so extreme. While most businesses do have strong interest in their customers and put considerable amount of money into their products and services, a lot of that money is poorly spent. If only a small bit of the typical time, money, and resources used to make and market a product or service were put towards design research—observing, talking to, and maybe even making artifacts with customers and users—the products and services we use would be greatly improved.

What Is Design Research?

Design research is the act of investigating, through various means, a product's or service's potential or existing users and the context of use. Design research uses a hodgepodge of methods drawn from anthropology, scientific and sociological research, theater, and design itself, among other disciplines. The methods (some of which are detailed later in this chapter) range from silent observation to lively engagement with subjects in active play, such as role playing and model making.

Designers use these research methods to obtain information about the subjects and their environment that the designers might otherwise not have known and are thus better able to design for those subjects and environments. It behooves designers to understand the emotional, cultural, and aesthetic context that the product or service will exist in. Only through research can designers find out.

Most design research is qualitative, not quantitative. Qualitative research is (arguably) more subjective, based on smaller, targeted sample sizes, and is concerned more with how and why questions. Quantitative research, on the other hand, is often about large, random, statistically-significant sample sizes and is designed to answer what questions. The outcome of quantitative research is often numerical data than can be made into statistics and mathematical models, while the outcome of qualitative research is usually interview videos, pictures, and other, "softer" data that is (again, arguably) more open to interpretation. Designers can, of course, do both, but this chapter will focus on qualitative methods of research, as those can focus more easily on motivations, expectations, and behaviors, and are thus most valuable to interaction designers.

Why Bother with Design Research?

Interaction designers aren't usually required to do design research. As noted in Chapter 2, many designers don't; instead, they trust their instincts, knowledge, and experience to create products. And in some cases, especially on small projects or in a subject area the designer knows well, this may be the correct approach. But on larger projects in unfamiliar domains, cultures, or subject areas, this approach can be risky. Without any up-front (sometimes called generative) research, designers risk finding out later in the process—during testing (see Chapter 8) or, worse, after the product launches—that the product they've designed doesn't meet users' needs or doesn't work in its environment. Research can help prevent these costly mistakes.

Designers usually work on projects outside of their area of expertise (design). The best way, aside from being an intuitive genius, of understanding people different from yourself and the environments they live and work in is to do research. Meeting even a single user will likely change one's perspective on a project. Spending a day observing someone do his or her job will give insights into that job that you would never get otherwise.

Design research can be especially helpful if the product contains features and functionality that are for specific types of users (often power users), who are doing specific types of work, work that the designer doesn't do. Sometimes conducting research is the only way to understand the nuances of a specific feature, as well as its importance to a specific group of users.

Design research helps give designers empathy with users. An understanding of the users and their environment helps designers avoid inappropriate choices that would frustrate, embarrass, confuse, or otherwise make a situation difficult for users.

Design research can also lead to moments of inspiration, such as when a research subject says something enlightening, or the environment suggests how a product might fit into it.

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