Industrial Designers are, without exception, curious. We harness and focus that curiosity into the activity of ‘Design Research’, which we use to better understand the direction a concept or design should take. The following is a glimpse into how it works.
Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research: which is which, and who cares?
Quantitative research is a numbers game, the more data you have, the more valuable it is. What do most people think or prefer? How do most people behave? Quantitative research is most useful for comparing or validating existing designs or concept directions. Focus groups are one well known way to gather this data. Depending on our depth of research, sometimes we collaborate with an outside research firm to generate quantities of data.
On the other hand, if innovation is your motivation, use Qualitative research for a positive correlation. Where do ideas come from before they can be turned into concepts to be validated? That’s the aim of Qualitative research. Looking for insights and uncovering opportunities which will lead to concepts or designs. Watching a person react or adapt in a unique way can lead to a paradigm-shifting product.
For example, when we, as design-researchers, are in an operating room, we will take notice of the nurse who has a roll of adhesive tape on her wrist, or when we observe an electrician and notice that he has ground the tip of his needle-nose pliers to a certain shape, we’ll ask why.
Qualitative research has its own methods referred to as Primary and Secondary research. ‘Primary’ in this context means talking directly to – or directly observing – individuals. One ‘primary’ technique employs Ethnography: design-researchers observe and/or interact with users in their real-life environment. An additional approach is to identify appropriate ‘user groups’, then arrange interviews with individuals to tease out insights.
Secondary research is ‘one-person-removed’ from direct interaction. We examine existing research and documents, online forums, blogs and articles. In this case we’re not only trying to infer latent needs and opportunities, we’re also looking to understand the competitive landscape. We ask, “What already exists, what already works or doesn’t work?”
Of course, design research is just the beginning of what we do. It informs the process that follows ideation, development, and refinement, not to mention engineering, fabrication and manufacturing. Most importantly, ‘Design’ is not one specific set of skills or tasks, but rather a way of thinking. It’s a way to determine a product user’s true, underlying needs, and then develop products and services to help them. We like to think of SIGMADESIGN Industrial Designers as mediators. We understand and balance the needs of people, technology, society, and business.