The state of design research

Executive Director & Partner

Design research provides the critical insights that help create the human-centered products and services customers desire.

To help brands and companies, the practice of design research continues to evolve—shaped by new technologies, methodologies and ethical concerns—according to 12 renowned research leaders we spoke to. They told us about the need for project stakeholders to be more engaged in research; how data accessibility leads to new ways of understanding people and strengthens qualitative research; and the importance of diversity and inclusion, even without a standardized code of ethics for design. And finally, our interviewees—including clients and Smart Design alumni—noted how the growing number of creative research methods is leading to highly innovative solutions.
 
These insights inspired five Virtual Smart Salons over the past year, in which design and research leaders discussed future forecasting, the shift to social impact-driven research, and balancing qualitative and quantitative findings, among other topics. The highlights and key takeaways of these wide-ranging talks presented here offer a concise overview of design research today—and how Smart Design can help clients determine the best and boldest solutions.

Engaging the organization

Companies and brands need to get closer to their customers in order to be more competitive—and simply reading a report doesn’t do the job. Design research teams need to engage organizations in the right way to ensure their work turns into actions that ultimately create value for the business.
 
How are today’s leading-edge researchers engaging their teams—and stakeholders—to drive impact?

Who we spoke with

Etienne Fang, currently a Principal Researcher at Amazon, and has previously led research teams at Uber, shared her experience working in tech where the constant need to update products and services requires the availability of on-demand insights from across the organization.

Raj Kottamasu, an embedded Design Strategist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital, described how he works closely with a complex network of non-designer stakeholders to ensure design adds day-to-day value within the hospital context.

Rachel Wong, founder of strategy firm How We Meet, shared her experience making audio stories as an antidote to presentations that collect dust while the valuable insights inside go to waste.

What you can do

Understand the company culture and communication styles in order to craft narratives and stories that resonate across the organization
 
Use new mediums and platforms to be a “researcher/storyteller” to ensure stories will be more widely seen and shared

Embed design researchers in departments and interdisciplinary teams to foster more collaborative work and encourage future leaders to value design research

Virtual Smart Salon

Engaging the organization

Making research accessible and relevant

Virtual Smart Salon

Engaging the organization

Making research accessible and relevant

Exploring qualitative research at scale

The accessibility of low-cost tech tools and new software platforms has made it easier to gather rich behavioral and attitudinal data among large groups of people. Yet, these new tools also raise questions about the role of mixed-method research and the right sequences of activities.
 
How can we effectively align research methods and combine the deep insights of qualitative research with the breadth of qualitative data to create a more comprehensive picture?

Who we spoke with

Ashley Graham, a former Design Research Manager at IBM, Ashley currently helps lead user research and service design practices at Spotify as a User Researcher. Together with her team, she works to equip businesses with experiences to build, learn, and grow as they meet the needs of people at work and at play.

Rachel Lehrer, as the Associate Director of Design & Innovation at Airbel Impact Lab—the International Rescue Committee’s Research and Innovation team—Rachel leads global, multi-disciplinary teams to design and test life-changing, scalable solutions for those affected by conflict and disaster.

Juliette Melton, a former lead of Design Research at IDEO, Juliette now spends her days as Managing Director of User Insight & Strategy for NYT Cooking—a division of The New York Times— where she bridges qualitative and quantitative methods to inform, inspire, and shape a new generation of news products.

What you can do

Determine the learning objectives—what you want to learn from the research—when the project begins, and then decide on the best methodology
 
Collect both qualitative and quantitative datasets to establish a complete picture of your customers and what matters to them
 
Use quantitative research to help determine how big a trend is and where it is showing up most often
 
Use qualitative data to gain a better understanding of the whole person and what’s happening in the rest of their life
 
Be aware of the context, culture and technological knowledge of participants in order to make communities feel more comfortable about engaging

Virtual Smart Salon

Exploring qualitative research at scale

Combining breadth and depth

Virtual Smart Salon

Exploring qualitative research at scale

Combining breadth and depth

Ethics in design research

Design has moral implications; there is no neutral. As more organizations make commitments around sustainability, social impact, and products and policies that serve a greater good, we’re witnessing greater scrutiny on the intended—and unintended—consequences of our work. At the same time, we increasingly rely on participants for insights, and are responsible for protecting their information.
 
How should we ensure that research is conducted ethically, balancing the needs of stakeholders and participants?

Who we spoke with

Margaux Boyaval a UX Creative Director at Teva Pharmaceuticals—brings together teams to use design thinking in order to reframe, learn, create, and deliver impactful healthcare ecosystems.

Dr. Camilla Buchanan co-leads the UK Policy Lab: a multidisciplinary government team working to bring ethnography, systems thinking, futures, and design to policy development.

Sara Cantor Co-Founder and Executive Director at Greater Good Studio in Chicago—leads a team that creates programs and services that are innovative, intuitive, and impactful.

Ovetta Sampson Principal Creative Director at Microsoft, works with a team of engineers and designers to visualize a clear path to digital transformation that starts now and builds towards the future.

What you can do

Establish a code of ethical practices and integrate them into design research

Be transparent about where data is processed and stored and how it is used—whether for public or private purposes—and acknowledge the contribution of participants

Accept responsibility for possible outcomes and the harms that might occur, and create products and services that proactively curtail negative impacts on individuals and communities

Acknowledge the shift in power of design from sponsors to participants, and ensure they too can benefit from the vital information being provided

Advocate on behalf of participants, especially vulnerable individuals that don’t have a voice

ethics in design research

Virtual Smart Salon

Ethics in design research

Balancing the scales of power
ethics in design research

Virtual Smart Salon

Ethics in design research

Balancing the scales of power

People from the future

If the unprecedented events of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that you never know what is coming around the corner. Yet, design needs to think about and prepare for the future, because what we do now will exist and have relevance in the years to come.
 
How can we effectively combine forecasting and human-centered design to deliver solutions that respond to people’s needs and are  anchored in possible (and plausible) futures?

Who we spoke with

Jen Brace works with a team to help bring global trends and insights from social, economic, environmental, technological and political arenas into the conversations at Ford.

Yihyun Lim explores the methods and tools for designing humane technology through value-driven design and prototyping; she is also co-founder of D.Fluence, a design research studio based in Cambridge.

John Miranda is responsible for market and technology trend sensing, uncovering strategic opportunities and gaps, and shaping investment decisions across Intel’s Data Platforms Group Business Unit.

Elliott P. Montgomery is a design researcher, strategist and educator focusing on speculative inquiries at the confluence of social, technological and environmental impact; he is also co-founder of The Extrapolation Factory, a design-futures research studio based in Brooklyn.

What you can do

Don’t try to predict the future, but help clients prepare for whatever may come by imagining different versions of a possible future from social, technological, economic, environmental and political perspectives
 
Look at signals, patterns, trends and events as well as shifting values, behaviors and attitudes and connect the dots to determine emerging directions
 
Understand the present and also look back in time—even thousands of years into the past—to map what lies ahead, asking “what if” questions to extrapolate the future
 
Stretch your imagination to create a vision of the future that may appear strange, including something tangible for participants to respond to
 
Include a diversity of voices to democratize future forecasting and enrich the conversation

Virtual Smart Salon

People from the future

Forecasting beyond the reality of the moment

Virtual Smart Salon

People from the future

Forecasting beyond the reality of the moment

Beyond the interview

Design research strives to go beyond what people say to uncover the underlying needs and wants that lead to innovation. With remote research now the norm, the truly observational approach has become more challenging, as it is now easy to default to video interviews and surveys. Participatory techniques such as co-creation are powerful but they risk leading participants down already established paths.

Who we spoke with

Emilie Baltz is an experience designer and artist with a background in film and industrial design who’s best known for her delightful innovation work in the food and technology sectors.

Sarah Parker guides multidisciplinary teams through the ”fuzzy front end” of research, specializing in the behavior of people and cultures using ethnographic studies conducted both in the home and in the wild.

Collin Smith is a designer and educator who brings a creative and playful energy to design research, for both business and social impact, in order to solve real-world problems.

What you can do

Create unexpected or even absurd settings and situations to encourage participants to let their guards down and express their feelings
 
Incorporate play and a mindset of playfulness to inspire curiosity and imagination, and let participants tap into their inner child
 
Evoke memories by employing multisensory approaches, and conduct research “in the wild” to help participants elicit deep emotions
 
Don’t forget that low-tech approaches and commonplace activities can be just as effective as high-tech cameras and sensors
 
Invite corporate leaders and key stakeholders—including the clients—into the process, particularly when certain projects employ methods that may seem unorthodox

Virtual Smart Salon

Beyond the interview

Creative Methodologies for Deeper Insights

Virtual Smart Salon

Beyond the interview

Creative Methodologies for Deeper Insights

Where do we go from here?

Our Design Research Virtual Smart Salon series took place during the COVID-19 pandemic—a time of unprecedented change as people adapted to the virus and reacted to technological, political, economic and social upheavals. Looking ahead, design research will therefore be more important than ever to help companies and brands identify and address these new needs and behaviors, and to avoid unintended consequences. We believe these insights will help move design forward within your organization. Please get in touch to hear our perspective on any of these topics.

Let’s design a smarter world together