Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Design is a Research Process

In the last few years there have been a number of articles focused on the integration of research into the design process. The majority of these articles have been framed from the perspective of a healthcare practice, however a design research perspective is applicable to any client project.  Two of these articles: How to Convert Key Design Issues into Research Questions by Mardelle Shepley and 6 Steps to Integrate Research into Healthcare Design by Upali Nanda and Tom Harvey offer advice from experienced researchers and practitioners regarding the challenge of integrating research into design and making it a formative part of the process.

As you look at the articles you will see that Mardelle Shepley acknowledges that designers are prolific generators of research topics, and that these important design questions are formed during the programming phase when primary design goals are formed. She shows how a design goal can become a design hypothesis by identifying examples of goals, defining components of a hypothesis and then sharing examples from three case studies. Her case study examples are particularly useful for taking a typical, somewhat general design goal, and crafting it into a design hypothesis which identifies a clear design feature and states a clear outcome. From my experience, this is one of the most important steps in clarifying design intentions.

In the second article Upali Nanda and Tom Harvey from HKS/CADRE take on many of the
same practice issues, but make an effort to link research issues with traditional design
phases. Their simplified framework is broken into six steps which are summarized and displayed in a graphic to show how the steps interface with typical design phases.

1. TARGET - Create designs based on key performance goals of the organization: set targets based on important client goals and define performance metrics to assess these goals.

2. EXPLORE/EXPERIMENT - Gather knowledge, understand users, simulate scenarios and test prototypes using tools that balance technology with empathy : explore and experiment with the potential of design options to answer design goals and design questions leading to a design hypothesis.

3. DEFINE - Link design solution to performance hypothesis: every design decision is a performance hypothesis and based upon project importance can be crafted into a clear testable hypothesis.

4. MEASURE - Identify key metrics for design and performance and collect baseline data. All measures are not quantitative: match design phase metrics/simulations with outcomes/performance metrics.

5. MONITOR - Ensure design is implemented as planned, aiming for targeted performance goals: track the project through documentation and construction to protect design features and hypotheses.

6. TEST - Test the hypothesis: to what extent did the project achieve the outcomes hypothesized and why? Remember that design doesn't "cause" improved outcomes; it creates compelling conditions for improved outcomes.

Both articles provide a useful perspectives to explore design as a research process.  Mardelle sums it all up at the end of her article.

"The generation of hypotheses during the design process is likely to clarify design thinking, support problem solving, and provide the base for potential research." 

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