Design Research is fundamentally about finding the right questions. At Designit, we use an ethnographic and sociological approach, which requires substantial interaction between our researchers and the objects of our inquiry.
The researcher is in charge of understanding people’s needs, desires, and fears, so we depend on our researchers’ ability to be empathic yet analytical at the same time. It’s the core of all learning. It’s also why design research isn’t a technology-intensive discipline. But these four tools make our lives easier by helping us collect, codify, categorize, analyze, and interpret data from our fieldwork.
WhatsApp and Telegram: Conducting diary studies in people’s mother tongue
Instead of compelling our participants to learn new apps or tools during the process, we adapt to their own tools to communicate with us. This lets them skip the learning curve and maximize the rich, graphic, symbolic language of emojis and GIFs for our interactions.
The initial power relationship between the researcher and the user instantly gets blurred. But the benefits outweigh this. The frequency and depth of communication with participants skyrocketed when we used these tools, compared with, say, user diaries. Emojis, pictures, and videos are frictionless for participants; they also use voice notes to express their opinions eloquently and frequently. While nothing replaces the qualitative information you get in a face-to-face in-person interview, these new elements add a lot of value — especially for projects that require longer-term follow-up and when your budget is limited and surveys are not enough.
Even when you do face-to-face interviews, the rich digital feedback you get with WhatsApp and Telegram provides incredibly useful contextual information about participants’ feelings and moods. When we do diary studies, we select the people with the best content and communication potential to interview. As you get to know people better, the digital aspect helps extend the relationship. That makes us more alert to how people use digital elements to express their opinions, and how their choices reflect their behavior.
These two tools also make it easier to be “present” in those contextual moments. Say you want to broadcast tasks to everyone individually, including links to prototypes. Then you can monitor responses using the tool’s web platform; it’s a cinch to download the information gathered on each group. The same advantages exist for our clients — we can create “missions” to document how their clients feel while using their products or services; it’s a bit of a live show for clients, and that dynamic seems to unleash a lot of creativity within the client’s own project team.
“The real-time feedback becomes a bit of a live show for clients, and that dynamic seems to unleash a lot of creativity within the client’s own project team.”
WhatsApp and Telegram are also versatile in ways we didn’t initially expect. We found we could use these tools for simulating chat bots for services throughout our development process. We want to understand how people communicate when there’s an emergency at home (say, a broken tap) so we can design the interaction model (the bot’s language, “attitudes” and actions) prior to the bot’s full development.
MailChimp: Building rapport ahead of time
MailChimp is everyone’s go-to for marketing, newsletters, and surveys, but we found it’s a great off-label tool for presenting yourself and your project to the interviewee before the meeting.
Do it and you’ll see a clear impact on the results. Our researchers found that after MailChimp introductions, participants showed up knowing what to expect, and even prepared in advance. Introducing the researchers visually, and offering some details about them also helps create a personal connection before the interview itself. And given that good research is based on a positive, open-ended interaction, we find that MailChimp introductions shorten the time our researchers need to create the necessary trust that draws out valuable information from participants during the fieldwork.
In diary studies, for instance, we give participants instructions for the online diary in advance. That way, during the meeting we are able to address any doubts participants have then and there, instead of laboring through the pack of instructions during the precious first meeting — which is critical to setting up a positive relationship, and one that doesn’t waste their time.
“MailChimp introductions shorten the time our researchers need to create the necessary trust that draws out valuable information from participants during the fieldwork.”
That little effort up front gives you a lot of payback, so next time you’ve got fieldwork, make the most of it by presenting your project approach and goals in advance.
Typeform: Making fun, short, and effective surveys
At Designit we’ve developed a proprietary software called Surveyit because we wanted features that off-the-shelf software didn’t offer, such as media display, routing, option propagation, an array of data downloading options, and full visual customization.
But not all projects require such extensive tools. Enter Typeform. It helps us deliver quick, guerrilla surveys to all stakeholders.
“Getting insightful numerical data is an art. Numbers are only meaningful if they’re derived in the right context.”
The goal of quantitative methodologies, such as surveys, is to add numerical data to our qualitative insights. Quantitative analysis consolidates our findings and strengthens our power to communicate those findings. It also lets us create business design baselines to build upon.
But quantitative research isn’t just about slapping some numbers isn’t just about slapping some numbers on qualitative insights to prop them up. On the surface, it seems sophisticated and precise, something to disguise what might otherwise be construed as shabby research or false leads. Getting insightful numerical data is an art. Numbers are only meaningful if they’re derived in the right context.
Setting up that context is enormously complex: You have to figure out what biases you and your participants might have, along with what questions are asked and how. All of that will impact your results. That’s why you don’t want to slip up when you’re creating those questionnaires. Making them not only appealing but even beautiful is a key part of ensuring success. Typeform’s ease of use makes it a no brainer for our researchers. Our participants respond to its streamlined but fun visual approach, which ordinary questionnaires lack.
Trello: Creating shared consciousness in multi-site teams
There are a thousand ways of using Trello. Combined with Paper and Slack, it becomes a powerful ecosystem of tools to maintain up-to-date connections between team members and clients.
It works by helping the team prioritize and manage their work pipeline for a project. Say you’re doing fieldwork in five countries. Organizing and carrying out that daunting first phase can be tricky. We find it more efficient to document all the tasks and to-dos into Trello, following their development in each country because the work is being executed simultaneously. Trello is connected to Slack, so push notifications alert you when changes happen — pictures get uploaded, tasks are completed, and so on.
We’ve done multi-country fieldwork for decades, and find it’s better to set up a homogenous framework for coordinating tasks and laying out content beforetackling the fieldwork. Especially when fieldwork is extensive, actions happen simultaneously. If you’re not set up to handle that, people get angry, clients get confused, and things go downhill from there. Trello is also useful because your client is buying into the scope of the work while you’re doing it. The client can have full transparency, which means they are also exposed to the complexity of the project. (That’s a good thing.) They track and get involved in the daily tasks and decisions, which generates the best possible conditions for both of you — an open and asynchronous conversation space in which everyone is invested in a positive outcome.
“It’s better to set up a homogenous framework for coordinating tasks and laying out content before tackling the fieldwork.”
Complex projects require core teams who stay on throughout the project. More than project managers, these are people who master several disciplines and who convey knowledge from one discipline to another. We call them in-betweeners. Trello help us to create such continuity within the project, as it lets us manage different phases of the project seamlessly, from research to service design to design sprints. And because it can be synchronized with Slack and Dropbox, it gives us flexibility to work within an entire ecosystem of tools.
Conclusion: Tools will solve our craving for data and help us cope with excess
Design research is anything but trivial, precisely because of its direct, almost unmediated relationship with the ecosystems subject to study — which includes everything from people and their relationships to their rituals and explicit and implicit behaviors. But using a number of tools cleverly can streamline team coordination, simplify fieldwork preparation, boost findings, and, most importantly, enhance the final outcome.
“No matter how futuristic we get, human interpretation will still be needed — to understand how and why that information was generated, the behaviors behind it, and finally to make sense of it all.”
We don’t think any of these tools are better than smart, creative people. But we do know that tech is enabling new ways of managing relationships and generating data. That’s key because next-gen technologies, such as wearables, AI, and voice control will change the way we relate to each other — but we don’t know how. We do know that those behavioral changes will have a data trail, and that data trail means research methodologies will push us into new frontiers. As a result, our default approach to research will change, and we’ll move from asking participants explicit questions to gathering and analyzing the vast trail of information they leave behind.
In any case, no matter how futuristic we get, human interpretation will still be needed — to understand how and why that information was generated and the behaviours behind it, and finally to make sense of it all.