I’m the researcher in my house. Last spring, my boyfriend and I were in the market for a new car. I generated lists of needs and wants, culled car-buying webpages and bought a copy of the Consumer Report auto guide. I designed spreadsheets of car models with columns for features, ratings and prices and searched locally for prices and dealerships. Within a month, I’d selected top contenders and within a weekend of test-driving, we became satisfied owners of a used Hyundai Elantra.
I thought I knew how to conduct research, make sense of disparate sources and build an opinion. But, the ambiguity of design problems is turning out to be far more complicated than finding a new car.
So, what’s going on here?
Secondary research seems to be the best way for designers to get a basic understanding of trends and issues, who (or what) is involved and the relationships between all those moving parts. Everyone has their own way of approaching research and I’m learning that one method which works well for one topic area does not necessarily work for another. I just never really know what will work until I try it. Thanks to a class called “Understanding Context,” I’m doing a lot of practice these days.
Cover your bases.
Assignment: How is the tablet market evolving?
I could enter “tablets” in the Google search bar, find a Wikipedia article with links to name brands and start a list of distinguishing features. Then I might click a reference to “tablet market share” and find a link to market share press releases on a tech analytics firm’s website. If I return to my search results and see articles about the top trends from PC World; at the end of the story is a link to a related article on the latest Pew Research Center study about tablet consumer preferences and then next thing I know I would have 35 browser tabs open and…I…could…just…keep…going…
But there are better ways.
Read Craft of Research. The authors present their advice with meaningful examples that makes me feel less alone in dealing with my “struggling to handle massive amounts of research” problem. They make the process feel like something that every researcher has dealt with, lived through, and learned from.
Follow the 15-minute rule. Don’t get lost looking for that one fact. If I can’t find it in 15 minutes, it a) doesn’t exist, or b) is the not the right thing in the first place. I’ve learned to try synonyms or related topics to get to the info I’m really after.
Summarize when you can, or as soon as you get breathing room. It’s both a relief and a curse when I realize I have a big pile of data points or articles sitting in Evernote. But I can’t turn those piles of useful information into something usable until I have an opinion about it. So, I retype key facts with quote marks and summarize in a Microsoft Word document as I read. Often I end up noting down additional questions to research based on what I’m reading or I start injecting my opinion or links to what else I’ve read.
Try a framework, you might like it. Thanks to my class lectures, I’ve started a small collection of design frameworks that provide different ways of slicing and dicing design problems. With big topics, they seem to be a good way to figure out an “in.” So, if it makes my research easier, then I’ll take it and try it.
I’m also noticing an interesting side effect to all this secondary research. Today on the train, I heard a woman describing to a friend her opinion of her new smartphone. I started eavesdropping because I was really intrigued by what she was saying. I mentally filed her comments alongside all of the other observations I had made about smartphones in my secondary class research. I wish it would have been normal (i.e., not creepy) to ask her to elaborate.
My curiosity expands with the amount of secondary research I do and that’s pretty exciting. Whatever my next research task is (cars, smartphones or intellectual property), I’m confident that I’ll be able to sift through the masses of information out there without wanting to pull my hair out. If that’s not a sign of researcher, I’m not sure what is.
Laura is a contributing writer & MDes candidate @Institute of Design IIT