Research and design

One important thing that many web designers still don't pay close attention to is how changes in the environment affect their work. Research can help prove the feasibility of a design and can act as an early warning system. Yet, too often designers start creating without having a clear explanation why their work will work. Or they create things that simply aren't useful enough. Many projects are declared obsolete now—more than ever before. The ones that aren't broken, still need to be supported and this could have been partially avoided by a more careful upfront research. Without gaining meaningful insights, we risk losing our potential in fixing broken things instead of improving the way we approach problems.

Biggest corporations often work with research institutions to find out what people really want. In the process, they spend a lot of time and money and this isn't accidental. They want to explore current consumer expectations, needs and wants, trends, competition, ease of substitution, effects of market forces and others. The research gives them more confidence that they are doing the right thing and not simply wasting resources.

Because the role of design is to solve problems, research can be used to find out what problem is worth solving and how to best approach it. Working on a project that promises to solve a big problem might still not be a good idea if that's not cost-effective. Through research we can determine the most important attributes of the solution and make sure that they are fulfilled even in the smallest details within reasonable constraints.

The decay of a product is marked not by when it is displaced by other products on the market, but by when the company stopped searching for ways to improve it (e.g. invest in research and further development).

Research results are very varying and dependent on the environment in which the experiments are conducted. This means that it is highly recommended for each company to do its own measurements and not assume anything. Passive research, or one that relies on widely accessible public data, is likely to contain wrong data by the time it is found. This is why companies hide their insights as long as possible as they give them competitive advantage. They have realized that the best way to know what others don't is to actively do their own research in a controlled way, while being clear what it is they are looking for.

Customer requirements, technologies, markets frequently change and we need to be aware how the changes in one industry impact all others. This is why we can't afford to skip the new meaning that our work gradually becomes over time. Being overly invested in our work while we do it doesn't give us the awareness we need to see this. Sometimes, there are multiple innovations in other industries that have a combined effect on the usefulness of our design. At other times design inspires other industries and inbreathes them more life. We never know from where the next research breakthrough will come that will make the impossible achievable.

It's often the speed that counts, so there is insufficient time for research. But this is a fallacy and we only need to remember that the later in a process we encounter a mistake, the more costly it is to correct it. Pharmaceutical companies probably wouldn't allow themselves to kill patients this way. They use research to prove their relevance. Industrial designers use it to determine the best possible shape of a product. For example, the construction of a Formula 1 bolide is directly impacted by air flow. Web designers use research to understand people while they interact with a product (through observation, ethnography, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups) in order to improve its ergonomy and functionality.

Research needs to lead to meaningful insights, not be random or chaotic. These insights must in be in some way actionable and lead to qualitatively and quantitatively measurable results. We need to develop our own framework for that.

One often forgotten function of research is that it can excite people. As soon as we think that something is impossible, but we have ways to see how others already did it, it radically changes our thinking. We start asking ourselves: “Why am I not that good?” Being in touch with research means high exposure to innovative ways of thinking, which in turn adds more flexibility to our own imagination. We can start seeing things more widely and deeply simply by exploring a variety of (current) innovations.

Unfortunately, (passive) research information isn't very easy to obtain and is often what makes the latest issues of magazines attractive, so they charge accordingly. This means that even when available, this research isn't accessible to those who can embed the insights into products that will benefit everyone, which effectively slows down innovation. We still need to better connect the people who do the research with the innovators who can use it, because very often they work in very different environments and time zones. This way we can minimize the time gap between the availability and implementation of the research results and prevent them from becoming obsolete. Ideally, research would be available at the time of implementation. Right now, a lot of people look at a research publication years later.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Mendeley team is already trying to make research more accessible to everyone. This platform allows to search for papers from a variety of industries and then view them or look at the references of the original resources. It is also meant to connect people (similarly to a social network) that do research or are interested in it, which can lead to more effective scientific collaboration. Right now, there aren't too many papers from the last years, but this will certainly change in the foreseeable future. One thing that makes papers different from simple blog posts is that they undergo extensive peer review before being published, which means that they are probably much more objective. If you are interested in (connecting multidisciplinary) research, this might be a good place to start.