Maybe you don’t need interviews

The use of research in design has increased dramatically in the last ten years. Nowadays, most design programs include research as part of the curricula, and courses about design research have also become common. However, research in design has also become synonym of “interviews”. Too often, I hear students said: “Yes, I did interviews,” or “I will do interviews” in response to whether they have validated a concept or tested a prototype with users

While interviews is a valid research method, it isn’t the only one. In some cases, conducting interviews won’t help collect relevant or useful data. Many students (and even design researchers!) build a design project solely with findings from (in-person or remote) interviews. While in some cases, the end result is effective and aligned with user needs, in other cases, research results may provide an inaccurate path forward. This is the case when the final decision is developed using a wrong data set: testing an idea or concept with a method that isn’t the appropriate one may indicate misleading results (e.g., not indicate strong thoughts against it, indicate that no changes at all are needed, provide unrelated insights), and, if unaware, these could be taken as a positive response.

Using interviews by default is a clear indicator that students don’t understand the use of research in design, and they only use it because they have to to check a box. As educators, it is essential that we explain students the range of research methods that are available and when to use them. To help select the research method that will be more helpful for each design project, the first step is to define why you need to use research and what you need to learn from it.

Before start planning to do interviews, determine why do you need research: what do you need to learn from people? In the figure, the information in each row correlates vertically with the information in the row below, indicating four groups in which research methods can be clustered based on the types of insights that can be elicited.

Understand what you need to know

Building on Liz Sanders’s framework (2002), each method helps elicit a different type of information based on whether such information is stored in short- or long-term memory. Information stored in long-term memory refers to:

  • Explicit knowledge: Memories and information that we have on top of mind and can express with words, like our name, date of birth, parents’ names, or address. Most research methods can be used to elicit this information because it is readily available, most commonly by what people say (opinions) when responding to direct questions.
  • Implicit knowledge: This information is harder to access and articulate, and it is accessed by looking at what people do (behaviors). You need research methods that help study people’s be­haviors, attitudes and preferences, like their outfits, interactions with other people, the steps performed to achieve a goal or task.

Information stored in short-term memory is much harder to access because it is ephemeral. It refers to:

  • Tacit knowledge. Ideas, skills, and experiences that people use but they can’t articulate or express how they use them. This information is important to understand why people do what they do, or deepen the level of detail beyond what you can see. Asking direct questions, like in an interview, won’t help you gather this information, rather, you need to use a combination of methods to study what people think (processes) with how they make decisions (decisions), or what they wish for (dreams) or they create (ideals). For example, one way is observing how people interact with a new product, while simultaneously asking them to describe what they are doing (Think Aloud method); practical demonstrations help reveal many steps and nuanc­es absent from verbal accounts. Other ways are using generative methods like asking people to make things or draw, as a way to express their thoughts, feelings, and dreams.

Choose the most relevant method     

So, to decide what research method would be more helpful for the project at hand, identify the type of information you need to elicit to better inform your design decisions and move forward in the process:

  • Do you need to understand needs and behaviors?
  • Do you need to identify specific steps in a process?
  • Do you need to learn users’ ideal solution?
  • Do you need to test how users interact with a new app?

The images in the slideshow provide examples of methods beyond interviews used to learn about children’s behaviors and dreams (Image 1 – IDM Students, 2022), understand users’ interactions with digital prototypes (Image 2 – IDM Students, 2021), identify students’ paths through central buildings on campus (Image 3 – Princeton Students, 2019), examine people’s eating habits during the week (Image 4), and test the connection between stories and people in public spaces (Image 5 – Denmark, Students 2017). For research to be effective and helpful to inform the design process, it has to provide relevant and actionable insights for the project at hand.

Sanders, EBN (2002) From user-centered to participatory design approaches, Chapter 1 in Frascara, J. (ed.) Design and Social Sciences: Making Connections, London: Routledge.

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