Design research #4: What is design research data?

Are you recording enough after customer research encounters?

Noting behaviours, attitudes, and context during research encounters uncovers rich findings and helps to tell compelling customer stories. Just recounting what was said misses important data.

Consider the attitudes, behaviours and context  of research subjects carefully during design research encounters.

In the last few years I have noticed design researchers coming back from field trips with written notes of what was said as the only record of their customer or user encounters. Memories of what was witnessed are forgotten, customer stories lack nuance and at worst the resulting research insights seem generic.

As designers we promote the value of our work as an opportunity to uncover the why and the meaning through qualitative research. We justify observational field research as the method to uncover behaviour that customers cannot articulate (e.g. what people say is not what they do).

I think we risk under-delivering on our own promise when the field notes we record don’t delve into the subtleties of what we experienced in the research encounter. If our notes only reflect what was said in a conversation we have not produced anything significantly different to that which could have been delivered over a phone interview. (To be fair, there are good reasons why this is happening. Project timeframes have become shorter and research methods have had to become leaner as a result.) In the process we may also miss sharing what was novel and curious about the customer, staff and user stories we have to tell.

There are some frameworks that help to avoid this shortcoming, such as POEM and AEIOU.

  • POEM: People, Objects, Environments, Messages, Services
  • AEIOU: Environment, Users, Activities, Objects, Interactions

These tools are convenient shortcuts to help keep in mind the behaviours, attitudes, objects and environments we should be paying close attention to during interviews and when writing notes afterwards.

Design research data

Behaviour Context Attitudes and projections
  • What was the sequence of steps that was taken? Did the product support or hinder this sequence?
  • What was the subject’s body language? Did it support or contradict what was being said?
  • Was the subject indifferent? What do they value? What delights them?
  • What aspects of the experience was the subject avoiding? Why?
  • How has the subject adapted their behaviour? What shortcuts, hacks have they developed?
  • What clues does the work environment (or places the experience occurs in) yield?
  • What physical traces can you detect in the environment? What do they mean?
  • What artefacts do you see lying around or close at hand? What personal documents can you explore with the subject?
  • How does the subject record or store information?
  • What clues does the product inventory yield?
  • What aspects of the experience or product elicit strong emotional responses?
  • What preferences were demonstrated?
  • What is a perfect product or experience to the subject?
  • How does the subject respond to imagined future scenarios and prototypes?

Word of warning

Design research is generative research i.e. we do it to come up with ideas. You can go overboard collecting and recording data if the research activity becomes your sole focus.

… it’s just more fun

I have been in the lucky position to take clients along on contextual inquiries in customer’s homes and offices and to staff workplaces. These clients (product managers, IT professionals, marketers) always come back telling the greatest stories of what they found to be interesting and often strange. It doesn’t take long to turn people into customer and staff advocates once they witness the experience, warts and all, for themselves. The stories that newcomers to customer field research tell are rich, exciting, full of empathy and clues to what can be improved. Let’s not short change what is fun and interesting about our work because in doing so we might find ourselves becoming less empathetic to our customer’s cause and less persuasive to our clients.

References and further reading

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