When we think of academic research, we often think of libraries or labs. We might imagine flipping through books, reading articles, or running lab experiments, but there is a branch of research that looks much different than this. In fact, it looks like the real world.
This branch is field research. Researchers from various fields apply this method of research, but in this post, I’ll be focusing on field research in design. Design is a big field with a wild range of applications. Design spans from information design (think infographics, instructions, maps) all the way to User Interface design (think apps and websites), but what’s at the root of design is a need to communicate effectively with people and facilitate understanding. The goal in design is to create systems that are effective–ones that work for their users. Accordingly, when designers conduct field research, they go out in the world and record qualitative data on people’s needs and experiences: What information are they searching for? What do they want out of a product? What parts of the current product are helpful? Which are frustrating and confusing?
In this interview, Sheila Pontis, a lecturer in the Keller Center, talks about her work and encourages designers and student researchers to embrace field research and trust qualitative data.
I remember it like it was just yesterday. The steps to the scientific method: Question. Research. Hypothesis. Experiment. Analysis. Conclusion. I can actually still hear the monotonous voices of my classmates reciting the six steps to the content of the middle school science fair judges.
For our middle school science fair, I had created a web-based calculator that could output the carbon footprint of an individual based on a variety of overlooked environmental factors like food consumption and public transportation usage. Having worked on the project for several months, I was quite content when I walked into our gym and stood proudly next to my display board. Moments later the first judge approached my table. Without even introducing himself, he glanced at my board and asked me, Where’s your hypothesis? Given the fact that my project involved creating a new tool rather than exploring a scientific cause-effect relationship, I told him that I didn’t think a hypothesis would make sense for my project. To my dismay, he told me that a lack of hypothesis was a clear violation of the scientific method, and consequently my project would not be considered.
This was quite disheartening to me, especially because I was a sixth grader taking on my very first attempt at scientific research. But at the same time, I was confident that the scientific method wasn’t this unadaptable set of principles that all of scientific research aligned to. A few years later, my suspicions were justified when my dad recommended I read a book called Design Thinking by Peter Rowe. While the novel pertains primarily to building design, the ideas presented in the book are very applicable in the field of engineering research, where researchers don’t necessarily have hypotheses but rather have envisioned final products. Formally, design thinking is a 5-7 step process: