Engine’s very own Martta Oliveira gave an exclusive interview to author Carola Verschoor for a new design book called ‘Change Ahead’, which explores how research and design are changing business strategy.
Below is an excerpt from the book. The whole book is available here and features the views of other pioneers and experts on the emerging themes in the integration of business strategy, research and design.
What is research?
Research encompasses the process of answering questions, discovering possible solutions and finding your way in a particular context.
Within the design process of discover, define, develop and deliver; research is the first step but it also happens at other stages of a project. Research is fluid; it happens in various different moments and feeds into the generation of solutions. It is an integral part of an iterative cycle.
In my view, any time that you are understanding the context and the needs, synthesizing those learnings and refining what you’ve done with those learnings by asking new questions: you are researching.
What is design?
Design is about bettering things. You design things to improve them, in any way. Whether it is aesthetics, functionality or any potential way of improving things for society, for the users, for service providers.
The most defining characteristics of design are a process which you follow that allows you to infuse empathy into what you are designing, whether it is a service or a product or anything else.
Business problems do not happen in a vacuum, and design brings in the contextual aspects into the generation of solutions. It does not assume that the world is stable, it actually assumes that it changes all the time and it integrates this into the process of making things better.
How are they different?
Research is a part of the design process. It is design. You could see them as concentric circles, with research in the middle of design. By nature, research is an essential part of design. However, design goes a step further. Research informs the design process, and then design creates an output.
In order to make things better through design, you need to know how things could get better. That is the role of research in the design process. Beyond that, there are moments in the process where you are not researching, at those moments you are designing the solution by fine-tuning it further based on what you’ve learnt, visualizing and explaining, or creating solutions. For example when you produce a service blueprint. At other moments you are learning more intuitively, by interpreting behaviour that has been revealed through research or understanding what has not been said: these activities are design activities that go beyond research.
So there is a slight difference, in that design is broader than research and needs to be informed by it. But they are not separate, they need one another in order to arrive at solutions. For design to be successful, every aspect of the outcome must make sense to the people you are designing for, which is what you get from research. Whether you are creating a journey map, a persona, a service blueprint or the end solution you generate; it all needs to be in line with the research.
Perhaps the key difference is in what they put value in. If we pull research and design apart to its more extreme forms in order to better understand them there are differences in how they contribute to the total process. Research focuses on the process of research and the outcomes thereof because its aim is to produce learnings that will enhance the design process going forward. The best solutions cannot arise without great research to inform the process. Whereas the designer is focused on the end product of the design, on finding the solution that will solve the problems.
How are they similar?
There is an important similarity in that they both bring empathy into the process. It is thanks to research that design adds value to business because it really boils down to creating empathy with the customer or with the user. It's about understanding how things work, and this is where research and design add value: not as separate activities but as part of a whole creative process.
I find that the moment you start sharing the process within the team, research and design morph into one. Whether it is during workshops to further deepen what you’ve learnt and what you are doing with those learnings. or while testing things out to better understand the constraints that affect your prototype and interpret the type of need for the solution you are creating. They both start flowing together and merge into one. I would say that research never leaves the design process, it is always there ready to jump in and support as needed by keeping a link with the context.
Finally, I would say that research and design are both chaotic yet structured. I think that this is why they work well in chaotic environments. They can cope with chaos because they follow structured processes that make them work by applying a structured approach to dealing with complexity and chaos. They help us understand how things are evolving and moving and how to move forward from there.
How do you envision the future of research and design within the business context?
I have drawn a braid-like flow in which you see business and design intertwining. They each come from different places, and they are tangling with each other to become one.
In the process of integrating design into business, I envision a future in which business and design collide in a positive way, crossing over a chasm and merging into a new way of doing things.
There are some arrows coming out of the braid, to symbolize what is lost in the process. These are the things that don’t really matter: old preconceptions, old ways of doing things and anything that does not add value. In that process, we will be distilling the essence of design and business; generating a better future together.