Review of Empirical Research Through Design

Design Research is one of those quirky phrases that I have a difficult time parsing.  Does design research mean that I am doing research on design (itself a tricky word as demonstrated in an article I co-wrote on “Is designing software different than designing other things?“) or does it mean that I am doing research for a design that I am working on? This conundrum came to mind as I was reading “Empirical Research by Design” by David Keyson and Miguel Alonso.

The abstract describes the paper thusly:

“This paper describes the empirical research through design method (ERDM), which differs from current approaches to research through design by enforcing the need for the designer, after a series of pilot prototype based studies, to a-priori develop a number of testable interaction design hypothesis which are then embedded in a working prototype and tested in context with target users. The approach builds on contextual enquiry methods such as context mapping leading to a verifiable working prototype while contributing to fundamental design knowledge. A case study is described to illustrate the application of the ERDM method.”

Context Mapping Tools

As I am always interested in new ways to do prototyping as well as ways to teach graduate students the importance of prototyping, this article had my attention. However, the introduction really caused me to want to read and understand the authors research:

“Research through design focuses on the role of the product prototype as an instrument of design knowledge enquiry. The prototype can evolve in degrees of granularity, from interactive mockups to fully functional prototypes, as a means to formulate, develop and validate design knowledge. The designer-researcher can begin to explore complex product interaction issues in a realistic user context and reflect back on the design process and decisions made based on actual user-interaction with the test prototype. Observations of how the prototype was experienced may be used to guide research through design as an iterative process, helping to evolve the product prototype.”

This introduction captured what I have such a difficult time conveying to students and colleagues that design and research are iterative activities.  Further, this process is all about generating actionable insights.

The authors describe their process in this diagram:

The authors highlight several challenges for the prototyping process.  One of the challenges occurs when getting to the prototype evaluation stage where it is important not to confound the research variables.  For example, if you are trying to study voice versus pen mobile interfaces it is important that the visual interface be the same in both variants.  It is easy to do cumulative designs that vary across multiple dimensions for each test and then your statistical analyses have a hard time sorting out the dependent and independent variables and any significant differences.

Another challenge is whether you need to understand how the prototype will work over time (the longitudinal study). If important, then you need to figure out how to observe a subject’s interactions over several weeks.  A longitudinal study is important as how we interact with something may be different once we become more of an “expert” user.  New designers tend to think of their designs as being timeless when in reality the users needs change over time. One way to do a longitudinal study is with the aid of the user.  Tools like dScout provide the user with an easy way to record their observations and a dashboard for researchers to make sense of the data.

What I especially like about articles that propose a design method or model, is when they include an example of the method in practice and the experimental results.  The authors described the design and evaluation of a fun office professional device – Pause Buddy.  What I found very helpful is that their methodology was clearer to me in the example than in the general description.  The described design method steps in the example were:

  • Hypothesis (this step is so critical and yet so many designers jump into a design process without any working hypothesis)
  • Iteration1 to n
    • Design
    • Participant Study
    • Findings
    • Conclusions – feed forward into next Design Iteration
  • Final Design
  • Final Evaluation

I really liked the two sets of designs that emerged from this Empirical Research Through Design Method (EDRM):

The authors did a great job of illustrating both definitions of “design research” posed in the opening paragraph.  This article contributed both a new method of design research (the research on design research) and provided an example (Pause Buddy) of how to do design research in the context of a particular design brief.

The only thing missing from the methodology I teach in my human centered design (HCD) classes is some notion of the monetization of the design – how will the designers make money with their newly designed product (the value creation).  While they did provide some insights into the human values (the other notion of value in the core HCD process), these values were not connected to the value creation process.

While I was not aware of this research before we started the design of Attenex Patterns, the process we used to design our product was congruent with ERDM.

If you are a practicing human centered designer, or a UX researcher, the ERDM should definitely be a part of your toolkit.  This process nicely encapsulates the power of empirical design research to generate more robust products in a timely fashion and at a reduced cost (get it right at V1 before starting costly manufacturing and distribution).  As a teacher, I look forward to using this article as part of my courses to show how ERDM can lead to more powerful insight generation.

The beauty of an evidence based research article is that it captures key concepts in a few pages.  Usually these articles are enough to convince you of the need for their design research method, but in the few pages there isn’t enough information to begin to practice the new knowledge.  Here are a few of the books I’ve found useful for different types of prototyping:

If you are interested in the richness of design methods, a wonderful book by a former colleague, Vijay Kumar was just published – 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization.  Vijay’s organization of the types of design methods is a must have for any design researcher.

Can you place the ERDM in this framework?  Maybe it can become the 102nd model.

This entry was posted in Attenex Patterns, Content with Context, Design, Human Centered Design, University. Bookmark the permalink.

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