Taming the complexity of design research; simple research for serious products Ross | October 22nd, 2008

From time to time, we’ll feature in our blog articles written by others. We’re honored today to feature an article about design research, written by Patrick Algrim from p41studios.com. Patrick also publishes an excellent blog about marketing, technology, web development, entrepreneurship and arts- hellyeahdude.com. Thanks Patrick!

Design research can be very complex, but it is a common misconception that it has to be difficult.  In this article, I am going to discuss some different ways of doing design research that are simple and effective.

The term “research” is defined as human activity based on intellectual application in the investigation of matter.   This simply means that research is not restricted to any certain guidelines, or based on any numbers.

Currently, designers have many options for executing research. There are internet resources such as web design galleries, creative design blogs, print magazines, and Web sites such as Twitter and FFFFound.  The internet also gives access to thousands of small to mid-size design firm portfolios.  The term I use for this type of design research is “transparent research”.   What I mean is that these resources exist to logically create or not create similar products, and if you do not use these for research, then you are just looking at them transparently.

Design galleries are the best way to execute your research (if the project is a Web site or interactive piece). Let’s take a look at http://bestwebgallery.com. If a Web site has made it to a popular gallery such as this, it is safe to assume that multiple people have had interest in that design. The key to using these galleries for research is to read the comments about the designs. You shouldn’t interpret each person’s opinion as fact, but you should use it to spark your own thoughts and ideas.  Some other great design galleries to view are: http://screenfluent.com and http://designbygrid.com/

Twitter is another great tool for research. I find myself refreshing my home page many times throughout the day.  Twitter is the best way to find out what people are talking about.  If you want the public’s opinion about a product (could be a print product, or a Web site), then this is the best place to find it.  Think of Twitter as one big virtual focus group.  You can ask people for their opinion about outside designs, or even about your own designs.  Follow as many graphic and Web designers as possible, get multiple opinions, and then take from it what you wish.

Some other great ways of conducting research do not involve a computer at all.  The ultimate goal you want to achieve as a designer is to be able to define exactly what you want your product to do, and how you want it to look.  Finding inspiration is a part of your research, and the key to finding it, is to look into outside resources.  For example, magazines like Print, Dwell, or HOW, are great ways to find inspiration. With magazines, your goal is to accumulate inspiring content, and to expose yourself to new and different styles.  You can incorporate those styles into your project, or use them to inspire your own. This type of research is much like the others, because you are still going to want to figure out what people are doing, and what people are not doing.  If you can define what people are not doing, then you have the perfect recipe for opportunity.

Research takes time, and inspiration doesn’t show its face to you every day.  So if you are looking to create an amazing product, then understand that you will have to take it one step at a time.  What works best for me, is to keep my clients to a minimum.  I prefer to work with one client at time, even though it usually ends up being about two or three. Do not spread yourself too thin, or you will end up with a creative block and possibly a bad product.

In conclusion, remember that research isn’t just about what people are doing. It is also about what people are not doing.  Ultimately, your design research process is going to be something you will have to develop and cultivate over time.  But, eventually you will find the process that works for you.

Some helpful tips for simple design research:

  • Go to your local library and find something rare.
  • Do keyword searches in FFFFound, Delicious, Twitter, and Flickr.
  • Sketch idea’s all the time. Then, browse through your own archives to find inspiration.
  • If you get stuck, or if you have a creative block – get out and walk around. The world is full of design.  Sometimes you have to wait for the idea to come to you instead of digging for it.

If you’d like to guest-write an article for our blog, please send me an email. ross at crowdspring dot com.

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  • Angeline

    Patrick -
    Thank you so much for sharing some of your tips on design research! I am a huge advocate of using Twitter, but I never really thought of it being a “big focus group” until now, but that’s a great way to think of it..

  • fredK

    “Research takes time, and inspiration doesn’t show its face to you every day. So if you are looking to create an amazing product, then understand that you will have to take it one step at a time.”

    Speaking of creative blocks, something that I’ve found to be a useful help is precisely this: to do research. Many times inspiration will come sprouting up during the research process and actually help clear the creative block, as well as give a good foundation for the project at hand. That’s my experience anyway.

    Thanks for the tips, Patrick — and some useful links to boot.

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  • ryangraves

    If I can add to this, I might say that if you’re forcing it, you will likely find nothing. Some of the best research or “inspiration” is found when you’re not looking for it.

    Let ideas come to you vs. hunting them out and you may find that your research time is significantly more productive.

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