Join Peni Acayo for an in-depth discussion in this video Research process overview, part of Foundations of Design Research.
- A good research process is a guideline that defines the major points. Your problem, what it is you're trying to do. Your objectives, what information do you need to find out. Your actions, how do you plan to gather information and act upon it, and your results, what did you learn and how do you plan to use it. Essentially what we're talking about is finding information, and using it to effectively solve a problem. This process is referred to as information literacy. There are a number of basic process models that have been developed around this concept. Here's one of my favorites, this is the Big 6, I use this model to drive my research process for almost every design project I'm working on.
The Big 6 is an information literacy model developed by two educators, Dr. Mike Eisenberg and Bob Berkowitz, and as its name suggests, it has six primary steps. For the sake of our discussion let's say we've been asked to create a way finding system for a large metropolitan train station, and we're using the Big 6 to help define our research process. Let's take a closer look at each step, and I'll share with you how I use each part to define my research process. The first step in the Big 6 is called Task Definition.
Task Definition is really saying define your problem, what is it that you've been asked to do? In this case, we might say that we're designing a way finding system for a large metropolitan train station, but that's a fairly simple statement. What can be even better is if we try to state the problem more specifically, and highlight the challenges that we might face. We might list some of the conditions of this problem such as a very large space, multiple destination points, international users, crowded conditions, and both repeat and first time visitors.
Therefore a better problem definition might sound something like this, how can we help navigate diverse international users through this large train station, to a variety of different destinations? Now we know we're dealing with diverse users who have a variety of goals a large complex space that has many different destinations. You'll also notice that there are two bulleted points underneath step one, define the problem which we just talked about, and identify information needed. After you've defined your problem the next important step is to realize what information you need in order to solve it.
In our case, some of these items might be what are the destinations in the train station that we need to direct people to? How many different nationalities move through the station? What are the busiest times of day? What percentage of users travel through the station every day, and what is the experience level of our users with public transportation? These questions can act as a starting point for our research. The second step of the process is called Information Seeking Strategies. Now this step is about setting up a plan for getting all of the information you need.
First, we'll need to determine all the possible sources. Let's brainstorm about that. In our scenario, possible sources might be the users of the train station, the physical space of the train station, the people who work at the station, the architects who designed the space and other similar transportation spaces, and the public transportation officials in the city. The second part says select the best sources, so you need to choose the best sources from your list that will work to inform all of your questions. How do you know which sources are best? Think about how much time you have to do your research, what tools do you think you'll be using, what sources are the easiest to access, and which sources may provide the most information? The third step of the process is called Location and Access, this step is about finding your sources.
This could mean a visit to the library to collect secondary resources, or scheduling visits with various research participants, such as in our case with the train station users, workers, and city transit officials. Sometimes this part doesn't always go as planned. Books or articles may be hard to find, or even more likely people can be difficult to connect with. One of the things that I love about this process is that it calls on you to list all the possible sources of information first. When you need to find a backup or an alternative all you have to do is revisit your list and choose something else.
Then find information within sources. This is one point of the process that I don't apply a specific task to. I think of finding the information within sources as something that feels more geared towards step four, where I begin to work with the research sources I've collected. I move onto the next step after I've established my research resources. Step four is called Use of Information. I would simply say that this step is about working with your research sources. The first part says engage, read, hear, view, touch, so this is where you put your research tools to use.
You read the literary sources you've collected and take notes. You create and send out your survey, and gather your results. You interview your research participants, and record your findings. This is the bulk of the process when planning crosses over into action. Then you extract the relevant information, and this happens automatically from working with your sources, it's the output of researching. The notes I took from observing the train station in action, the recordings I have from interviewing passengers, the survey results sent out to 200 participants.
I gather all the information I learned from my research, and I begin to look at what I really learned. This overlaps with the next step of the process called synthesis. Step five is called Synthesis. This part of the process involves organizing all the information that's been gathered, and analyzing what can be learned from it. There are many ways to synthesize your research, check out chapter six for a good overview and the different tools I find most valuable. A good synthesis should highlight the most important information you learned, make it clear, and show how it can affect the outcomes of your solution.
Let's look at some specific research from our example. 68 percent of the people could not find their connecting train during congested times at the station, and we observed that existing signage is hung low at average shoulder height making it difficult to see. By synthesis we can determine one criteria for an end solution is that the signage needs to be up higher, so that it's easier to be seen when the station is crowded. The next part in step five says present the information. This is the time when you share your research findings or your summary of them.
Your audience might be your design team, your project members, stakeholders, clients, or others. We discuss how to create a research summary document in the end of chapter six. This phase may also mean a number of short and formal discussions with your team about your research. The last step of the process step six is evaluation. This step is about evaluating the product of your research, and the overall process that you used to get it. For instance, did your plan generate answers to all of your initial questions, if it did great, if it didn't why not? Could your process have been flawed at some point? Did you learn something along the way that you could apply to your next project? This step is simply about taking a look back at what you did, realizing what worked and what didn't, and applying that information in the future.
That's the Big 6 Information Literacy Model, and how I use it to outline the general steps in my own research process. A research process is much like a design process in that it's never as linear as you'd like it to be. Often times something you discover will send you a bit backwards to research a little more or talk to someone else and things don't always work out as planned so you'll find yourself making a lot of adjustments along the way. Just remember, having a plan keeps you on track in the midst of all that chaos, and focused towards reaching your final goals.
- Using research to add value and credibility to design work
- Understanding the different types of research
- Choosing research tools
- Creating a research plan
- Presenting research
- Using research to begin the design process