The Clash between ‘Traditional’ Research and Design Research

Most of our projects here at the MENA Design Research Center are collaborative and multidisciplinary; this means that sometimes, while working with psychologists, social scientists or education professors, we experience a typical conflict between our methods and theirs. The relatively new design research approach is unorthodox and in many cases the complete opposite of what a scientist has learned to obey as rules of research. In fact, it could be exactly this rigidity in scientific and statistical research that has lead to the birth of design research and its focus on intuitive analysis. Basically,  the main difference between the two is that traditional research depends more quantitative data (numbers, measurements, statistics…) while design research favors qualitative information (observation, sounds, images, subjective interpretations…). This methodology is not the invention of designers, in fact most of it is borrowed from ethnography; Geertz defined this multifaceted and multi-sensual concentration on the object of research as “thick description”. Moreover, relying partly on your intuition while researching is not considered wrong, because even intuition is based on an innate human logic.

“You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon”

Design research is NOT so much about how many people bought a certain product or used a service, what age group they were or whether they were male or female. It is more about  how they felt about their experiences using the product or service, where they encountered problems, and how they dealt with them. It is the various creative ways to see solutions that didn’t really fit in the ritual problem solving scenario, and it is mostly about the input of a single person that can offer more insight to the designer than all the silent accurate statistics and demographics ever could.

“So the next time someone asks you, ‘how many people did you talk to?’, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter.”

Inspired by Sam Ladner’s ‘The essence of Qualitative Research: Verstehen’, 2009


Ethnography & Design

Since the 1980’s design educators have been trying to integrate concepts from other disciplines (literature, rhetorics, semantics, semiotics, sociology, psychology…) to form a design discourse which could push for design to be recognized as a field with a strong theoretic backbone; one that educates students to think of the intrinsic value of design in social context rather than just prepare them for the trade. In those terms, research takes center stage by backing up the design decisions and presenting them on solid ground instead of justifying them purely on a designer’s creative intuition and aesthetic taste.

Ethnography is an approach developed by the social sciences to aid the study of everyday culture through people, their behavior, and the ways in which they interact with the world. An ethnographer produces knowledge through observation of interactions. Most importantly, ethnography is a qualitative method of research, meaning that it does not rely on quantitative -numerical or statistical- data.

Some examples of ethnographic techniques are participant observation (e.g. using a video camera in a certain setting), non-participant observation (e.g. using hidden cameras), interviews (preferably semi-structured open-ended questions and based on previous observation), and artefact studies (e.g. cultural probes).