When people ask me to explain what I do for a living, most don’t have a concept of what design research means – let alone what a design research practitioner does. No design researchers stood next to the nurses, fire fighters, or insurance salespeople visiting on Career Day. Sometimes, as a shortcut to understanding, people ask what I studied in school – and the answer to that is complicated.
Among my team of nine design researchers, we have degrees in 19 varied fields, including art history, linguistics, business management, product design, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and architecture. Our diverse backgrounds, in seemingly unconnected fields, show that there is no typical path toward design research.
In this article, I explain how design researchers bring value to clients by virtue of our diverse backgrounds.
Mindset is as Important as Skillset
Our work combines mindset with methodology. More important than deep knowledge in any one field, a design researcher needs a flexible and curious mindset. The common thread is neither our work experience nor education, rather our shared soft skills – listening, observing, and relating to people with different experiences. What attracts someone to this work is a desire to understand the world and make it better. Our job, advocating for the user, is driven by the curiosity and empathy essential to building trust with users.
This shared mindset, in combination with a mastery of human-centered design methods, allows us to constructively build on one another’s expertise. My colleague who studied cognitive psychology tackles data analysis differently than my colleague who studied engineering design. Merging our perspectives, we can three-dimensionally synthesize data. Clients see this benefit in the unique solutions derived from our convergent interpretations of one data set.
Variety is Fuel for Innovation
A variety of backgrounds and experiences also enables more creative thinking as we explore and solve clients' problems. We juxtapose seemingly disparate concepts to better understand each in relation to the other and to spark creative and innovative solutions. We try to unravel a problem in one field by applying ideas, solutions, or models from another field. For instance, if a project involves organizing a website’s information architecture, my colleague with a background in Library and Information Science will draw inspiration from her experience with archival science and cataloguing.
Mashing up ideas requires a comfort with ambiguity and an ability to make connections and see relationships beyond the obvious. With knowledge in a variety of fields and skill in exploring their intersections, we are collectively aware of more examples, case studies, patterns, relationships, hierarchies, and ideas than any comparable team from a mostly unified knowledge base.
Working with Subject Matter Experts
LiquidHub design researchers collaborate closely with subject-matter experts to unearth user needs. This partnership generally precludes our need for deep knowledge into client industries. We don’t need to know all the answers – we need to know which questions to ask and where to probe. As we explore and understand the ecosystem from the margins and work our way in, we form an understanding about what’s going on as only a non-native could.
Our clients benefit from our outsider perspective in three major ways. First, we uncover problems they are blind to because they're too close to the picture to see the pieces' interplay. Second, we find pain points that they see as business as usual and reframe them as opportunities for impact. Third, we discover the current state of a problem without the bias of knowing how it should be or how it has always been done. This outsider perspective, coupled with our expertise in human behavior, shifts the conversation from one focused on blame and human error to one focused on change and solutions to move to the ideal future state.
The path to solving any problem begins with understanding the experiences of the real people who are impacted by it. Regardless of the industry or project, we combine our shared mindset, diverse skillsets, and expertise in design research methods to tell the user story and deliver solutions to our clients.
Think you have a problem that our design researchers could unravel? Get in touch with our Director of Design Research, Justin Wear, firstname.lastname@example.org.