Design Research: The IDEO Way

The design firm IDEO has been leading the market for the past decade or so. They've perfected their design research methodology and gained a unique position in their market ( Design research picks up the ball where conventional research methods fail. Traditional methods compare new ideas to those of the past, and accordingly, it filters out the truly revolutionary and disruptive ideas. These are the ideas that cannot have their economic values directly measured because nothing else like it appears in the market place. I'm assuming most people have heard of conventional research methods like focus groups, data mining, trend analysis, etc. So I'll jump right into the nitty gritty of design research.
Design research insists that the entire group, from engineer to marketer to manufacturer, become intuitively understanding of the product or service being provided. This research process involves the entire group in the brainstorming session. This inclusive methodology paves the way for a holistic perspective and approach to the development process of the product or service ( I think the common vocabulary built up by the group during these brainstorming sessions actualizes a lens for the research to be filtered through. The design research that's undertaken will then fall into three categories: generative, evaluative or formative, and predictive (Informing Our Intuition: Design Research For Radical Innovation by Jane Fulton Suri).

Generative design research involves looking to the world around oneself in order to find experiences, patterns, and opportunities that are conducive to innovation. For example, Jane Fulton Suri observes the thoughtless acts people perform in their day-to-day life. She observes the group conformity of placing empty paper cups on a counter only because a few others have conveniently left their cup. Walking along a line on a sidewalk and wrapping our tea bag strings around a cup handle are thoughtless acts that spark innovative opportunities (Thoughtless Acts by Jane Fulton Suri, see also: Evaluative or formative design research is the continual learning that goes on throughout the entire scope of the project. As new information pours in while the group brainstorms, prototypes, and observes, remaining open to this new information furthers the holistic understanding. Evaluative research can be done in tandem with or sequentially between generative and predictive research. It creates a constant flow between different research methods. Predictive design research considers the business viability of the product or service. If the product or service is truly disruptive, it probably doesn't have a predefined market. This means that “there is tremendous pressure to provide estimates of business potential to guide decision making” regarding the innovation (Informing … Innovation by Suri). The innovation's potential will become clearer as the development team undergoes several iterations of prototypes. The information learned about the deliverable should then be used to further refine the groups intuition. This sets the group on its next iteration of the design process (Figure 1).
IDEO and similar design firms have been destigmatizing intuition as a reliable innovative tool. As undirected as intuition would seem to be appear, it is supported by design research and funneled by the common vocabulary of the group.

It all begins with our cyclical design process
Figure 1: Courtesy of MiD (

You may also enjoy reading:

Fourth Order Design: The Underlying Structure of Communities and Moral Obligations of Designers

The design field is widening its scope as the world becomes smaller, tighter, and more complex. Designers need to be able to place themselves in the middle it all. Doing so, provides a vantage point to understand and make evident the invisible relationships present in the community. Depending on the context of these relationships, one will simply be rephrasing the same overall theme that is present in all communities. The community needs a responsible designer and the designer needs a responsive community. Otherwise, progress will not be based on an understanding that discovers subtle relationships.

from neuroscience and philosophy to design: some thoughts on thinking and solving

Design needs to leave its philosophical baggage at home, take a taxi to the airport, and fly to the far east. Our philosophical past, in reference to western philosophy is rooted in Descartes' dualism and his famous conclusion 'I think, therefore I am' (Meditations by Descartes). His conclusion was formed logically and consciously. This has created an adverse environment for proposing different ways of solving problems. We are stuck in the mindset that useful thinking only occurs on the conscious level.

The stories of great mathematicians, musicians, and philosophers that suddenly see the entire solution or composition in their mind’s eye as they walk to the coffee shop should have provided some clue as to the mind’s operations. People sometimes call this phenomenon intuition or a gut feeling. These misnamed terms incorrectly point to the emotions that appear to subjectively tilt people’s choices one way or another. They are pointing to the effect and not the cause. Intuition is the effect of subconscious processes and causes taking place just below our conscious mind (Mind time by Benjamin Libet). In the business and professional world, intuition is stigmatized and is a form of problem solving that is avoided. It is seen as illogical because the process is not explicit. On the contrary, human activity is implicit from day to day and realizing this will allow for a liberating design methodology.