Learning about lives through design research

Design research is an approach and set of methods that are particularly well suited to understanding the reality of people’s lives, what they want for the future and how the current situations help and hinder them.

26 September 2019

By Chris Vanstone, Chief Innovation Officer, TACSI

The limits of conventional consultation

Common approaches for research and consultation include interviews, surveys and town hall meetings. Whilst these methods have their place they also have their limits when working on tough social challenges that require radical new solutions.

Large group ‘town hall’ type consultations can be effective when participants have the confidence to speak up, when problems are well defined and there are a finite set of solutions. However, place-based initiatives usually aim to meet the needs of people who may not have the confidence to speak up (because of a history of marginalisation) and problems and solutions are complex and hard to define. In these situations design research methods can offer a better way to understand people’s lives, needs and preferences.

To fuel innovation,  we need deeper alternative insight that can lead to breakthrough solutions. We need to learn new things to inform different things. However, conventional consultation often reveals surface level insight, what people think they need. 

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked my customers what they would have wanted they would have said a faster horse.” Of course, he didn’t go into horse breeding’ he developed the mass produced motor car. And he did that because he understood what people value – getting from A to B more quickly. It’s this type of breakthrough insight that design research strives to uncover.

While a survey might aim to validate 10 questions you already know to ask, design research seeks to identify 100s of potential starting points for innovation.

How can design research help?

Design research typically happens in context (e.g. in people’s homes), uses small sample sizes e.g. 8-12 people, and engages 1:1 or in small groups. Sometimes, design research involves spending hours or even days with an individual. Design research usually involves getting clear on the questions you need to answer, identifying who you need to speak to to answer those questions and then combining multiple methods to reveal the required data.

Observational methods like rapid-ethnography or user diaries can reveal what people actually do, rather than what they say they do.  Generative methods in which people respond to stimulus, play games or design things can reveal what people feel, dream and value. And when you understand what people value, as Henry Ford did, you have great fuel for innovation.

Diagram: Exploring experience at a deep level
Diagram: Exploring experience at a deep level

Design research complements conventional consultation

Design research can be thought of as a complementary tool to large sample research and data sets, a set of methods that are particularly useful when engaging marginalised groups or looking to create non-standard solutions.  Existing evidence, data and large-sample research (e.g. from surveys) can and (if it exists) should be used to inform design research. In turn, what’s developed by a small group through design research activities can be validated through a survey with a larger sample size.

We're social
Get in touch

Level 1, 279 Flinders St
Adelaide SA 5000

1/145 Redfern Street

Redfern NSW 2016

Our Community House
552 Victoria St
North Melbourne VIC 3051

Subscribe to our newsletter
Be the first to hear about TACSI events, resources, our big ideas, and new projects.
© 2022 TACSI
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians and Owners of the lands in which we work and live on across Australia. We pay our respects to Elders of the past, present and emerging. We are committed to collaboration that furthers self-determination and creates a better future for all. Please note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this website may contain images, voices or names of deceased persons in photographs, film, audio recordings or printed material.
At TACSI, diversity and inclusion is more than a statement; equality and accessibility are guiding principles embedded in everything we do. We strongly believe that it’s the collective sum of all our communities differences, life experiences, and knowledge that enables both ourselves and our partners to come together to tackle complex social issues. That’s why we’re committed to having a diverse team made up of people with diverse skills from all backgrounds, including First Nations peoples, LGBTIQ+, mature-age people, and people with visible and non-visible disabilities, regardless of sex, sexuality or gender identity.