As part of the many changes that design higher education is experiencing in the last decade, there are two that speak louder and are also interconnected: adding research into the curricula and engaging in more cross-disciplinary challenges. The broader the role of design in society, the larger the need for working collaboratively and engaging in cross-disciplinary projects. In this context, human-centered research has become essential to deeply understand the audience and internal dynamics of complex problems, and design interventions that meet their needs.
While quantitative and secondary research have been part of design for a while, human-centered research brings a different lens to looking at problems – which is still unknown for many: it is qualitative, needs-driven, and ambiguous. In addition, this research approach merges methods and techniques from multiple disciplines beyond design like sociology and anthropology, to name a few, which makes it imperative to learn new vocabulary and criteria to work with it effectively.
On the bright side, there is only one human-centered research for all design fields. Of course, methods and research designs should be adapted to the specifications and needs of each project, but the underpinnings are the same. This is what makes learning and understanding the basics of qualitative research so important. Once you have a solid grasp, you can start being creative and adapting methods and strategies to your needs.
Equipping design educators
For the last decade, I have been imparting workshops and short courses to art and design educators to help them build a strong research foundation for both conducting their own human-centered research projects and teaching the principles to their students. Although I have worked with groups from different countries and cultures, these are some common challenges among design educators that I have identified:
- Finding a common view on design research
- Understanding the scope of design research
- Understanding how it can be used across different design fields
- Conducting credible and valid research
- Supervising credible and valid research projects
- Developing research assessment criteria
- Understanding the difference between conducting research in academia vs professional practice
This month I’m going all the way to Universidad Tecnológica de la Mixteca in Mexico to teach a two-day human-centered design research workshop. My goal is to equip educators from several design disciplines – graphic design, industrial design, architecture, engineering, visual arts – with the mindset, knowledge, and skills to confidently pursue research as well as to share some strategies for teaching this approach to students and supervise research projects.