Designing Research -- conference report

This weekend saw the sixth Design Research conference, organized by students at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology. I didn’t make the trip to Chicago, but I did co-opt the eyes and ears of Jeffery Mau, an IIT alumnus himself and now manager of design and innovation strategy at Sapient. Herewith his highlights:

“This two-day event showcased thought leaders using observational research techniques to identify unmet needs in people’s lives. Held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Illinois, the conference attracts students and professional designers from all over the world.

Darrel Rhea, Principal and CEO of strategic consulting and market research firm, Cheskin, kicked things off with a few thoughts on how design and research have been overlapping for some time. He argued that companies need to find ways to grow by providing products and services which are truly meaningful to customers.

His key example was supplied by his own son, Randy, a keen outdoor adventurer who is currently studying at a college in New Zealand…

...Randy sought out a specific parka at the Patagonia store in San Francisco on a visit back to California because he really believes in “what they are up to”. In other words, Patagonia’s core values, focused on social change and environmental sustainability, aligned so closely with his own passions that he would go to the same extremes he goes to in mountain climbing, skiing and surfing in order to support Patagonia.

Rhea’s essential point was that when companies fulfill not only consumers' economic, functional and emotional experiences, but also their meaningful experiences based on core values that truly align with their customers' values, companies see an order of magnitude increase in value. In other words: good design research = good business.

One of the most detailed research methods presented was “Mode-Mapping”, by Stuart Karten, Principal of Stuart Karten Design. Based on the premise that a person goes through several modes in one day, this technique documents a person’s activities and related emotions. When working on car interior design concepts for Johnson Controls, the company which manufactures car interiors for most major automotive brands, Karten’s design team spent entire days with mothers. Imagine the mad rush a mother goes through to drive the kids to school on time, then to all their extra-curricular activities in various parts of the city throughout the evening. In many cases, one missed step can throw the entire day’s schedule off. At the same time, there will be certain low points for rest in between activities.

In one example, the only time the driver’s daughter could do homework was in the car while traveling from one activity to another. By spending time with people to learn about the ways in which they really use their vehicles, Stuart’s design team was able to identify unmet needs in current car interior designs and devise many concepts for possible solutions.

Easily the most entertaining presentation of the conference was given by Dan Saffer, Experience Design Director, Adaptive Path, on how to use research in order to lie. His presentation was a witty, sarcastic tale on how one could use research findings and data to shape stories that sell desired concepts but may differ from reality. First, he tricked the audience by sharing a research project he said he had conducted in Japan, only then to reveal that he made the whole story up, and that all the photographs used to visualize the trip were in fact pulled from the photo-sharing website Flickr.

Saffer then proceeded to share many tips and tricks on ways to make data say what you want, using examples from politics, journalism and design to poke fun at how serious we all can be about our work. Ultimately a cautionary tale about ensuring ethics in research, Saffer effectively made his point that designers should hold high standards in conducting research, and did so while making everyone laugh.

The underlying theme of the event was that by finding empathy for people and their needs in life, designers can find ways to create deeper, more meaningful solutions to any type of problem. By unlocking value through the combination of research and design, we can also help businesses innovate to find growth opportunities in increasingly competitive, global markets."

Sounds like a good time. Sorry to miss it... and thanks again, Jeff, for putting together this review.

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