What is Design, HCI and UX Research?

Why Design-Research

The word ‘Design’ , when used in a formal sense—when it is looked from the perspective of its pedagogy, practice and discourse—it acquires particular connotations.

Design is a human-centered endeavor. However, 'human-ness' itself is a complex thing. Many things about humans are obvious such as their physical being, environment and behavior. However, the real challenge lies in understanding the underlying social, cultural, political and spiritual aspects. Problems s related to them are complex, systemic and ill-understood. Often termed as ‘wicked problems' they cannot be solved using traditional approaches.

They often require that the questions themselves are questioned. This is critical because solving a problem is an easier task; identifying it is difficult (questioning the problem that has already been raised is still more) .

This is where Design-Research comes in. It combines the creativity & sensitivity of a designer with the systematic-ness & rigor of an engineer. A Design-Researcher, using various research techniques, tries to understand the underlying issues that can drive a business in the future. After doing that, she uses her design acumen to suggest (and test) appropriate solutions. In this way, she imparts a strategic-advantage.

Design and HCI and UX

Design has traditionally used physical —paper, wood, metal, textile and brick & mortar. However, today they are handling intangible material like software and services with the same adeptness. There concerns remain the same-identifying human issues and solving them through shaping of material. Really speaking, there is hardly any difference between Design and HCI and UX. While HCI is concerned with the larger, and academic, concerns of interactions between digital technology and humanity, UX is the application of theoretical principles to design appropriate products. However, the concern of complexity inherent in human-centered issues and solving them through design is common to them.

Design/UX and Business

Given the emerging shape of today’s world, which is characterised by complexity, indeterminacy and uncertainty, many of concerns of Design/UX are critical for entrepreneurial success. Let’s see some of them:

The Human behind the Problem

Design is Human-Centered. It means, any design-inquiry should start with the human and the process should not, at any moment, lose focus of the human. Being human, no doubt, is to have a physical existence. However, to relegate it to merely that is to take away the humanity from the human. The psychological and emotional dimensions of a person drive much of a person’s behavior than her physical ones do. Then, there are her spiritual dimensions —aptly encompassed as Self-Identity and Self-Actualization by Maslow— that drive her to find the meaning of life.

Needless to say, any entrepreneurship effort needs to focus on more than just the physical needs. Especially, when technology makes it possible to meet a large number of physical needs then it is (the satisfaction of) the higher level needs that act as differentiator.

The problem with non-physical needs is that they are so difficult to understand. Whereas a person can easily express, “I need a shelter.”, she would not be precise when asked, “What kind of shelter?” This is because the psychological, emotional and spiritual dimensions are difficult to discern and are closely tied to a person’s experiences, preferences, worldviews and the sense of belonging-ness. To be able to come up with a coherent understanding of these (that is, someone else’s) dimensions is difficult.

Design with its long tradition of Human-Centered approach, uses many methods to research human needs in their entirety. As philosophy of design is humanist in nature, empathy is expected from a designer during user research. That takes care of the problems arising out of power differential and cultural distance between the designers and the users (which becomes critically important when the beneficiaries are Emergent Users or Next-Billion Users).

System & Context

Humans (and, as a consequence, there needs) are part of larger systems—social, economic, cultural, technological and political. Therefore, systems have a decisive role in defining people’s needs—What a person may need? What will be the guiding behavior to fulfill those needs? What will be the constraints?

Systems are embedded in the larger contexts. While system are characterized by interconnected entities, contexts are long-term characteristics of a system which are guided by a shared discourse.

(Understanding of) context is important as it decides a person’s experiences, preferences, worldviews and sense of belonging-ness.

Designers focus on the system and context because the designed products or services are likely to be used within the user’s system & context, not outside. Decoupling a person from system & context means that there is incomplete understanding of how a product or service is going to be used.

It is due to the critical importance of the system & context, designers insist upon doing design research and evaluation in the field—where users work and live—not in the lab.

The Trap of the Very First Solution

Designers follow a process known as Divergence & Convergence. Divergence means a thorough exploration within the solution space. That means, in other words, avoiding ‘stopping at the first idea’, which is an easy thing to do. What is not easy is to break the mental blocks that hold up a designer from seeking an appropriate solution that optimally satisfies most of the constraints. Often clubbed under umbrella terms like ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’, design-exploration involves seeing a problem from multiple & unique perspectives as well.

It is not uncommon that the solutions come as pleasant surprise—pleasant because they suddenly seem to satisfy many constraints simultaneously, and surprising because of their elegance and uniqueness.

Failing Early, Frequently & in Tiny Steps

The first design solutions are crude. They are also put through a series of evaluation & redesign cycles. Sketches, mock-ups or prototypes are important ingredients in this process. Their utility comes from the fact that they are concrete representations of the intended artifacts. Discussions around them are more concrete than around, let’s say, a concept or a specification. At the same time, these are not expensive in terms of time, money and effort. In this way, they make it feasible to evaluate a large number of ideas in a concrete manner.

Iteration is necessary because we deal with wicked problems where a large number of (rather indeterminate) parameters have to be satisfied simultaneously. Interestingly, each iteration solves one thing but also brings forth other issues that may remain latent.