Why design research?


Ben Jacobson, partner at Conifer Research  and adjunct at IIT Institute of Design, reflects on exploreID: What is Design Research?, a panel exploring the practice design research and common questions about it with current and prospective ID students. Find other exploreID events here.


Choosing to pursue a new educational path is an exciting yet daunting decision, especially without a clear vision of what might lie ahead. How do you make use of design research in the real world?

Last week a panel of practitioners, including and Quinton Fletchall and me from Conifer Research and Sara Jo Johnson (MDes 2010) from BCBS Association, convened to answer this very question for prospective and current ID students — a culturally diverse set of people known for their curiosity, ambition, and interest in the future.

My fellow panelists and I discussed the mindsets, challenges, and joys of being ethnographers, design researchers, and business strategists; and what it means to take design research skills into large corporate organizations, community development initiatives, and small boutique consultancies.

We fielded such questions as:

  • “How do you deal with bias that comes with being a human?”
  • “What happens when you get stuck? Is it okay to get stuck?”
  • “How do we build momentum and gain “buy-in” within a skeptical organization?”
  • “How do you deliver bad news at the end of research and innovation project?”

Our answers and antidotes could be summarized as: Honesty, integrity, compassion, commitment. Rinse, repeat.

But I’ll expand on some of the highlights:

Don’t be afraid to swim in data
Even when you’re drowning in the content and the data, it’s a good thing. It may feel awful, but it creates a crisis for your brain and our brains are excellent at pattern matching. Innovation is born out of people making the most of those interesting new connections.

Design research can be a battering ram
Silos exist for a reason, and every company has them. They provide a certain amount of structure and value, but also have a lot of negative implications for decision making and the sharing of information. The benefit of doing design research is that it provides an opportunity to break down silos and create bridges and shared experiences for people in different teams, which results in a common vocabulary and perspective of the end user across silos.

Embrace the bias
You can’t get rid of bias; it’s a fact of our existence. It’s damaging when you ignore it, when you pretend it doesn’t exist, or when you bury it. Just wear your bias on your sleeve so everyone knows it. The problem comes when you try to hide it. So step one is to try to externalize it as best you can. Step two is to lean into your team — help each other stay honest.

To our future students: Show Up, Speak Up, Act Up and embody a better future. And if you’d like to attend another exploreID event, you can find them here.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash