Understanding the use of Field Research in Design



Participants asking questions during the beginning of the workshop. 

Last month, I attended the Decipher Conference organized by AIGA Design Educators Community and hosted by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (Michigan). The conference was focused on themes related to defining, doing, disseminating, supporting, and teaching design research. In addition to the holistic approach to the topic, I really welcomed the idea of a hands-on conference with three types of sessions: activity groups, conversations and workshops, rather than the conventional conference format structured around keynote speakers and paper presentations. Furthermore, this conference was an excellent opportunity to interact and connect with design researchers, practitioners, and educators from different universities and organizations.

As a participant and workshop facilitator, my main takeaway is related to the gap between research theory and practice. I unpack my learnings below.

The gap between research theory and practice


Brief activity to understand the difference between field data and insights.

There was great interest in the workshop as 38 people attended and everyone was really enthusiastic (I think the word “visualizations” in the title may have suggested it was a data vis workshop though). However, what I initially planned as a brief intro ended up extending quite a bit. It was surprising to notice that basic research concepts were actually unclear. Some of these concepts were:

  • what field notes should look like
  • how to code field data
  • how to move from field data to insights
  • how to use personas to inform design decisions

After some discussion and Q&A to shed light on the above concepts, we moved to the activities*. In a nutshell, participants worked on two activities aimed at coming up with design solutions to improve undergraduate students’ experience on campus. For the first activity, they used the 5Ws and 1H method introduced by Roam to code and analyse real field data sets. For the second activity, participants used real personas defined from the given data sets and findings to create Today and Tomorrow pictures to illustrate their solutions.




Image 1: Field notes coded using the 5Ws and 1H method. Image 2: Participants generating ideas based on a persona’s needs and finding cards. Image 3: Today and Tomorrow picture to illustrate a team’s idea. 

Although we couldn’t go in depth, both activities provided a taste of the rigour and type of work needed to make sense of field research, and how to use research findings to inform design decisions.

Reflections on design research

Workshops I attended and conversations with other design educators indicated that while user research (e.g. usability studies, A/B testing, market research) has become much more common place in design education, field research is still misunderstood and quite foreign to the design community. Interestingly, many myths and assumptions about this form of research came up during my workshop and others, such as “you need time to do field research!”, or “I have 20 years of experience, I know what my audience needs”.

Perhaps, the root of these myths is that many designers actually don’t conduct field research as part of their practice. This is the big paradox to me: why design educators spend so much effort and time adding research into the design curriculum if they don’t believe in it or use it in their daily practice? We can teach students the theory and methods, but we, designers, should also adopt this type of research as part of our  practice to fully understand what it involves, its limitations and challenges. Only after spending some time in the field, and actually designing and conducting studies —and struggling with the experience!—, I truly understood what the books describe.

This shows that there is still quite some work needed to bridge theory and practice. But, on the bright side, the fact that conversations about field research have started is a positive sign (five years ago, these were not in the design community radar!).

*My original workshop proposal was planned for a 6-hour slot and a maximum of 12 participants. However, my slot ended up being of 3 hours and more than 30 people attended the session.

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