How I Teach - Reflecting on 15 years in design education
by Jon Kolko

Chapter Two: Foundational Skills

Contextual research

Perhaps the most important skill designers need to be successful is contextual (or observational) research. I teach this as one of the core tenants of user-centered design: observing real behavior in order to influence design decisions. Students learn how to structure a research plan around a particular focus area, and then perform ethnographic research with real people.

This form of primary observational research has several key benefits.

Observational research helps students realize that the people who will use their creations are not like them. They may come from a different socio-economic background, have different ideals and values, behave in unique ways, and most likely, they don’t think about design. By observing people in the real context of their real work, students come to understand and respect these differences. The differences help shape assumptions during a design phase. As students develop empathy with people, they become more and more confident making decisions that represent these users. They can act as a proxy for the users, channeling and championing their perspectives, wants, and needs throughout the process.

Observational research helps identify opportunity areas where design can make an impact. Students identify places where workflow breaks down, where errors creep into a process, or where someone is dissatisfied with an existing product or service. They hear first-hand about areas where an existing design is frustrating or difficult to use, and observe people struggling to achieve their goals. These are very well-structured design problems: there is a problem, and the designer can now fix it.

Observational research identifies more ambiguous opportunity areas. Students may start to feel that there is a place where design can help, but the problem is not as well defined. In these cases, qualitative research helps them better shape an argument for a thematic problem (such as “people have anxiety around school” or “people are angry about customer service”) instead of a specific problem. These opportunity areas are often more valuable to a company, as they indicate areas for disruptive innovation.

Observing real behavior also has the added benefit of getting the students to leave the safe confines of the studio and go explore the world. It’s tempting for students to hide in the building where things are predictable and in their control. But user-centered design demands that they go to the users and observe them, building a sort of apprenticeship relationship with the users.

When I teach students about contextual research methods, we spend time learning about good interviewing techniques. Students learn not to ask closed questions that provoke yes or no response (“Do you like this?”), and instead ask questions that lead to more discussion (“Can you tell me your feelings about this?”). We investigate the differences between leading questions (“You don’t like this, right?”) and neutral questions (“How does this make you feel?”). And, we discuss how to bring a demeanor of curiosity to a problem space. The student may have knowledge about the research subject matter, but they learn to check that knowledge at the door and come to the research ready to learn.

I teach students to develop a research plan that shows their research focus, who they will talk to, where they will find these participants, and a script of what they will say. They iterate on this plan several times to ensure it makes sense. Most importantly, students role-play the research scenario. They act out what the research will feel like, so they can adjust their research script accordingly.

Students also learn the mechanics of conducting research. I have students audio-record each research session. They learn to prepare their recording technology (does the recorder have batteries? is storage full?), to organize their note-taking materials, and to ensure that they understand the roles of each teammate. They learn about informed consent (explaining to a participant ahead of time what they can expect from the study, and what compensation they will receive as a result of participating), and prepare informed consent forms.

When they actually start conducting their research, students run into some common problems.

Getting access to participants is difficult. It may be impossible for students to gain direct and in-context access to specialized roles, such as an air traffic controller or an army general. In class, we discuss how this mirrors the realities of a professional research study, and that in both an academic context and a professional context, they will need to learn to think critically about the situation and propose a solution. They learn to use “next-best” research participants, such as a retired army member or someone involved in airport operations instead of flight control. These proxy-users may be more readily available, and will still give students valuable information that they can use to better understand a topic.

Students also run into a problem of wanting to craft the perfect research plan. They agonize over the details of their script and research focus, iterating on it over and over. Group members struggle to make decisions, and so they spin. But they don’t realize that in many respects, their focus and plan doesn’t matter that much. These things act as a starting place for research, but the research itself guides and steers both the conversation and the subject matter plan. It takes practice to feel comfortable with this fluidity. It’s my role to help them move forward—often, to nearly push them out the door to get started.

Contextual research skill development recasts how students think about research. Instead of performing secondary research, like cursory web searches, or conducting questionnaires and surveys, students learn to research with real people. I think this fundamentally changes how they approach problem solving because they are able to form an empathetic connection with people. This is valuable not just in a creative design profession; it’s valuable in every context where people are involved.