Adopt Design Practices into the Research Process

by Megan Fath

As abstractions of complex information, diagrams can unintentionally become victims of interpretation and hidden meaning. One often-misinterpreted diagram is the process map visualizing the design development phase.

As design and corporate organizations integrate a phase of research into their design development process, this process is likely visualized by separating the research exploration from the design exploration. This separation of phases inadvertently implies silo activities and dedicated talent to each phase. Design, however, does have a vital role in the research process. Just as the design process continues to embrace research, design practices are valuable in the research phase.

In employing design practices into the research process, this is not to say that teams need to engage in a set of problem solving exercises before they can understand the problem (no doubt that compressed time schedules often challenge teams to do this).

Below are some suggestions and fodder for bringing design into the research mix.

Include the designer eye
Bring the design team to observe the research interviews. Not only will this assist later in minimizing the challenge of translating the findings to the design team, designers contribute an observant eye to the user’s physical interactions and workarounds as well as a analytical perspective regarding how the current design is challenging or limiting users. Caveat: It is not the time for leading questions (“How about…”) and hypothetical scenarios (“Would you use…”) attempting to get research participants to state how they would solve the problem.

Visualize the problem through information diagrams
Designers are recognized as problem solvers. Information design, however, comes into play before the solving can begin by helping us visualize the problem. Used to bridge the problem-understanding aspects of research and the problem-solving aspect of design, information diagrams and visual models can provide a narrative about what was found, communicate problems as they were experienced, and identify opportunities.

Create a compelling story
How do we frame the research findings as an evocative story that it is meaningful, digestible and sharable to the client and other collaborators? How can we ensure that “they get it?” Research is rich with human stories, emotion and narratives that are challenging to distill into a set of outputs like documents and presentations.

Engage in critique and dialogue
When the research team is analyzing the data and interpreting the findings, the design culture of dialogue and critique is invaluable. Encourage the collaborators to post thoughts on walls and prompt discussion.

Design collaborative experiences
As the work begins to segue from the research phase to the design phase, different teams will begin to engage in the findings. This transition moment is critical. To help gain team alignment around the strategic intent and opportunity for design moving forward, create a compelling moment of collaboration and design an experience that gets beyond a presentation.

Link insight to opportunity… aka find the “so what.”
Research often yields volumes of insight. Teams will need help prioritizing these findings and linking these to design need and opportunity.

In adopting these design practices as part of the research process, the design contributions will make the research invaluable and the research instrumental to the later phase of design work.


Research and Design are often diagrammed as separate events which can lead to confusion for both the design team, strategic partners, and clients. Incorporating design and research practices together rather than treating them as siloed events can lead to deeper user insights and innovative solutions.


Quick Tips
Research and Design don’t have to happen sequentially. Many of the skill sets that designers posses can enhance and augment research and enable in to be shared in ways that are more meaningful.


Dig Deeper!
Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis by Jon Kolko

The Information Design Handbook by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady

Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte


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