Designers have the difficult task of devising purposeful solutions within certain contraints, often in a huge variety of disciplines. It’s vital to be a quick-learner with the ability to apply design principles and methodology to the context of the client.
On one project, a designer might be asked to revamp an airline’s check-in process at the airport, then turn around for their next project and design a medical device, or software interface, or supply chain. Good design requires a thorough understanding of domain-specific vocabulary, procedures, structure, best practices and more.
An elegant design solution requires a comprehensive understanding of the problem, and this requires design research. Research not only provides context for good design. It also expedites the design process by allowing the design team to make research-supported decisions, and avoid opinion-based arguments.
While research for other purposes (such as market research) can benefit from quantitative methods like surveys, there’s no substitute for qualitative methods to inform design decision-making. This is because qualitative data gives us the most illuminating information about user behavior and thought patterns. A marketing department might be interested in market size or demographics, but designers conduct research to determine how people behave and what affects their behavior.
In her book Designing for the Digital Age, Kim Goodwin describes four qualitative approaches most commonly applied to product design: usability testing, focus groups, individual interviews, and direct observation.
Usability testing is different from other qualitative methods because it requires the prospective user to interact with a prototype. Goodwin explains that it can “be very useful in evaluating a design or in persuading people that there are problems”, but it’s not very effective as an “up-front research technique”. In other words, it’s a good way to assess existing design, but not a great way to kick-off the design process.
Focus groups can be an efficient way to get some quick, high-level opinions. But for design purposes, “focus groups are not particularly helpful for understanding how people will use a product or service”. Any student of group dynamics knows that individuals act differently in groups. Certain individuals will dominate the discussion, and others will passively follow along, so you end up with a consensus that doesn’t necessarily represent true user behavior or thinking. Use focus groups only sparingly for quick feedback about product viability or aesthetics.
One-on-one interviews are the best way to dig into the details of a user’s experience. They are ideal for learning about a user’s thoughts and feelings. Still, what people say can be different from what they do. A user describing her workflow may leave out vital details of her actual behavior. One of the best ways to control for this self-reporting bias is to combine interviews with direct observation. This way, self-reported behavior can be combined with an understanding of actual behavior.
Direct observation allows the researcher to gather information about how users complete tasks and solve problems. “Watching people interact with their usage environment,” explains Goodwin, “reveals physical clues about the tasks they perform and the problems they may be having”. Observation allows designers to see how contextual variables (work environment, co-workers, etc.) affect behavior. Of course, this method doesn’t shed much light on what people are thinking, so it can work well in conjunction with interviews.
Depending on the project, designers may choose to use some or all of these methods to collect qualitative data. Goodwin recommends combining observation with interviews, which “will allow you to gather rich, useful information very quickly while minimizing self-reporting error.” In the end, a well-thought-out research methodology provides the design team with invaluable data about how their prospective users think and act.