A newsletter on audience research and development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

(Reading time: 3m, 42s)

On Friday, I asked how you would define the term “design research.”

Seven souls responded to the call; Each of you can rest easy now, knowing that the god of research has reserved space for you in Arcadia.

We received lots of interesting responses; I regret promising you that I wouldn’t ask to share any of your responses. Still, I think I can speak generally about what you wrote and still keep my promise.

Here’s a quick list of how I would summarize the responses. Design research is (or refers to):

  • Physical design (e.g., designing a new exhibit/renovation)
  • UX (user experience)
  • Market research
  • Systems design
  • A process for problem solving
  • Communications design
  • Behavioral analysis
  • Audience research

I think all those answers are correct — design research is or can be all of those things. And a few of the responses I got felt very complete — especially those related to audience research and systems design.

Let’s pay a visit to the Wikipedia god and see what he has to say about design research:

Design research was originally constituted as primarily research into the process of design, developing from work in design methods, but the concept has been expanded to include research embedded within the process of design, including work concerned with the context of designing and research-based design practice. The concept retains a sense of generality, aimed at understanding and improving design processes and practices quite broadly, rather than developing domain-specific knowledge within any professional field of design.

I felt pretty unsatisfied reading that definition.

Maybe because I don’t see “understanding and improving design processes and practices” to be all that valuable to the organizations I’ve served.

I can’t imagine saying to a client, “What you really need to do is improve your design processes and practices.”

Who wants or needs that?

It’s not that improving design practices has no value, but when you look at all the things you need to do before the end of the year, how high up on the list is “understanding and improving our design processes”?

That sounds much more like an activity than a valuable outcome.

How I define design research

Design research refers to the study of an audience to develop or improve a product, service, or experience.

I think of organizations as products.

When an organization embraces design research, the product it ultimately develops and improves is the organization itself.

The alternatives to design research are usually:

  1. deferring to the opinions of authority figures (hello, archbishop),
  2. just guessing, or
  3. deferring to authorities who are probably just guessing (hello again, archbishop)

If you adopt design research for a single project — say, to improve a website or design an exhibition space — you’ll likely increase the chances that that product will succeed.

But when design research takes hold as the default way of making decisions, the culture of the organization improves. (I say that assuming we can all agree that audience research produces better outcomes than relying on guesswork or untested opinions.)

I think of design research as a bridge between the organization and the people it aims to serve. Design research is a systematic way to give the organization’s audience a voice in decision-making processes, which helps ensure the organization succeeds in fulfilling its mission.

How is design research different from user experience (UX) research, design thinking, or human-centered design (HCD)?

They’re not all that different. They all prioritize audience needs and goals, and they make use of similar methods.

But I’m a bit allergic to the term “design thinking.” It feels like even more of a buzzword.

And I worry how “user experience” and “human-centered design” may be interpreted by organizational leaders. Hearing such an emphasis on the audience may put decision-makers on guard. “Ok, you want to create a better user experience and get more ‘human-centered’ — sounds fun, but I’m running a museum that needs funding.”

The term “design research” isn’t perfect. No wants to pay for design or research — those feel more like activities than benefits, but it feels a bit more neutral to me.

Is “design research” a misnomer that’s more trouble than it’s worth?

Another alternative to the term “design research” is “value-based design,” which was coined by Nick Disabato. I like the term because it feels more balanced. It feels less idealistic and more practical.

VBD suggests that the goal is to create value — for the organization and the audience or customer.

I think the problem with both value-based design and design research is that they contain the word “design.”

People often associate the term “design” with graphic design or web design or interior design. Those are all activities — not outcomes.

Given the range of responses you all shared — all of which were correct, but some of which were incomplete — I have to think there’s a better term for what I’m calling design research.

What do you think?

Have we arrived at a better definition? Is there a better term I could be using to describe this method for organizational improvement?

You can reply or, if you’re in an anonymous mood, share your answer here.

Thanks for reading,


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