Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Research is a Method, Not a Methodology

Using scientific methodology in the design process ...

All projects should include research.

That’s the current thinking in design research and user-centered design. Indeed, many of my Adaptive Path colleagues won’t do a project unless it includes some research to uncover the goals, motivations and needs of potential users. More and more, however, I’ve found my views about the importance of research have become less dogmatic. On several recent projects, I’ve conducted no research at all — or at least very little of it — and those products seem to have turned out fine and are well liked by users. Luck? I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that there’s only a loose correlation between research and the final outcome of a product. Microsoft spent at least two years researching Vista; Apple did no research that I know of on Mac OS X. Now, obviously there are many factors (technology, business, marketing, etc.) that go into the creation of a product or service, and it’s probably unfair to judge products in this way, but there are few other ways for designers to evaluate the value of research except through the success of the final product. Brilliant insights into users’ needs are effectively useless — just proverbial trees falling in an empty forest — unless they reach those users in the form of a successful product.

And what about projects that build upon other projects — which is to say, most projects? Is it necessary to conduct research simply to add a feature to an existing piece of software, or a new section to a website? Perhaps. Or, just as likely, perhaps not.

Making Magic
In Jesse James Garrett’s seminal essay ia/recon, he admits that, in the end, he follows his hunches: “Guesswork is an inescapable part of our work. More importantly, the quality of guesswork is what differentiates a good architect from a bad one.” And Michael Bierut reveals the same in a recent essay: “Somewhere along the way an idea for the design pops into my head from out of the blue. I can’t really explain that part; it’s like magic.”

One of the reasons designers are hired is their expertise — those “good guesses” — part of which comes from knowing what works in most situations, and what doesn’t. It could be argued that this expertise (which is made up of intuition, experience, understanding and taste) is more important than an understanding of users. I’m not sure I want to go that far, but I have decided that there is a more reasonable approach than the dogma that research has to be included on every project. Evidence that is all around us, from the humble fork to the lauded iPod, proves that this dogma simply is not true."    (Continued via adaptive path)    [Usability Resources]

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