Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis

November 1, 2010

This is a sample chapter from Jon Kolko’s forthcoming book, Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis. 2010 Oxford University Press.

Chapter 4: The Value of Synthesis in Driving Innovation

As the word innovation has crept into the vocabularies of executives, so too has the word design. The search for the keys to innovation has made increasingly clear that both “design thinking” and ethnography play a critical role in the larger context of the design process. In this context, businesses are increasingly realizing that not just quantitative research, but also qualitative research combined with creative thinking can lead to new and interesting ideas for products, services, and systems.

Observational research is the type of qualitative design research often performed at the beginning of the design process. This research involves observing real people, in their environments of work and play, as they go about performing a task, achieving a goal, or having an experience. Pragmatic design research grew out of information technology and software design, as researchers observed people using complex computer systems in an effort to increase the usability of these systems. Other qualitative research methods have latched onto the successes of the social sciences in understanding culture. Ethnography involves immersion in the culture in which people spend their time, a method that is much less goal directed and might simply offer a topic statement—the “culture of entertainment,” for example—as a starting point.

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Design research is different from marketing research. The goal in design research is to find inspiration for design, whereas the goal in marketing research is to predict the behavior of a larger group. Unfortunately, large businesses nearly always lose this critical distinction in the similar terminology and approaches. Consider the core similarities and distinctions listed in Table 4.1.

Table 4.1—Core research similarities and distinctions
Design Research Marketing Research

Focuses on people

Focuses on people

Can be qualitative or quantitative

Can be qualitative or quantitative

Borrows from the social and behavioral sciences

Borrows from the social and behavioral sciences

Attempts to understand culture. Looks at the styles, words, tools, and workarounds people use in an effort to inspire design.

Attempts to predict behavior. Looks at what people say they would do, or what they actually do, in an effort to predict what they would do in a new situation.

Celebrates the unique and peculiar. The rare or obscure in observations can lead to a new or interesting design idea.

Avoids the unique and peculiar. The goal is to understand mass responses; outliers are frequently ignored.

Avoiding bias is irrelevant. The goal is not to be objective but instead to be rigorous.

Avoiding bias is critical. The statistical analyses of data require an objective point of view.

To witness the ambiguity about research in the context of a business problem, consider the real-world example that follows:

A design team is writing a proposal for a $200,000, 12-week program to develop innovative digital-file storage. A third of the time will be spent conducting research, and the team decides to observe how eight people work and document that research through transcription. From this research, the team will produce a list of key insights and use those insights to generate preliminary design ideas. When the designer presents the proposal to the client, the following dialogue occurs:

Prospective Client: “So, I see here that 4 weeks—or about $65,000—is going to research. We’ve already done a lot of research. We have a great document that we can give you. It’s about 60 pages long with lots of charts and graphs. It describes the segments we are targeting and has responses to a great survey we conducted with thousands of people. So let’s take this section out completely.”

Creative Director: “Although your document sounds very interesting, the type of research we do is different. We will look for some of the nuances in the work environment, learn about the culture of digital storage in the workplace, and really get to know how people think about digital file storage.”

Prospective Client: “Your proposal shows you’re only going to look at eight people, though. We’ve done a questionnaire with thousands of online respondents, so we feel pretty confident that we know what people want.”

Creative Director: “Understood, but it’s a really critical part of our process.”

Prospective Client: “I would really like to see this proposal rewritten without that $65,000 in it.”

Both sides are right, but they are right about different things. The client’s questionnaire data—if it was collected properly—can indicate a set of statistically relevant predictions about what a larger population might do. But this data will not describe what to make, how to make it, or what the interactions and experiences should feel like. Because both sets of activities are called research, the client is quick to dismiss this seemingly duplicative work as a waste of time and money. Then the designer’s difficult job becomes to educate and evangelize the unique role of design research. Designers may succeed in educating the client by showing samples from previous projects (and highlighting how research was conducted) and will sometimes show diagrammatic representations of how the research data will be transformed directly into the final product.

An unfortunate side effect of this dialogue is that unless the education succeeds, the designer will likely still conduct the research but will not charge for it. This will diminish the value of design research on that particular project and, over time, design research as a whole.

Jan Chipchase, a design researcher at frog design, commonly conducts research without a particular project or product in mind (and frequently without the challenges of the evangelizing described earlier). Chipchase was asked by frog to travel the world, observing people and their communication behavior. He was not looking at traditional usability, such as the “ease of use” of specific products or the number of taps it takes to dial a number. Nor was he focused on marketing metrics or the search for “innovation” or “insight.” Instead, Chipchase worked to understand how communication fits into culture, be it augmented by technology like a cell phone or facilitated by a human mechanism like dance, speech, or writing.

Whether the research is pragmatic—as in looking for usability enhancements—or conceptual—as it was for Chipchase—the philosophy of design research is the same: to learn from people and to emphasize people, rather than technology or business. As an example, consider a design-research program focused on understanding the social relationships between teens and mobility. A researcher could approach this problem from three immersion perspectives by immersing herself in the following:

  1. A group of teens who frequently travel a great deal or commute to school and then to their jobs. The researcher would try to understand the way teens keep in touch over distances, and she would learn about the language and the feelings about staying in touch over distances.
  2. The technology used by teens, by looking at their various computers, phones, and other technological devices. The researcher would try to understand the pros and cons of various existing tools, and she would learn about the attitudes toward these devices, the most and least frequently used features, and the qualitative feelings about the various tools.
  3. The business of mobile communication and networking, by looking at the services and capabilities of leading companies such as Facebook or AT&T. The researcher would learn about pricing models, tiered offerings, branded services, and the other packages.

In the first perspective, the researcher will learn about potential for the future state. She will see problems as opportunities, and findings will emphasize behavior. Behavioral opportunities may exist in the following areas:

  • Technology (the devices the teens own)
  • Style (the clothing the teens wear)
  • Identity (the language the teens use)
  • Infrastructure (the transportation methods the teens use)

This perspective is broad. The researcher can learn about the topic from a holistic sense, looking both directly at the problem of “social relationships and mobility,” as well as around the problem.

In the second perspective, the researcher will learn about the current state, from a realistic standpoint. The word realistic implies that the artifacts being investigated have conformed to the realities of production. Their constraints are usually pragmatic. (“At the date of production, a smaller phone could not fit all of these electronics. No matter how much we want it to be smaller, it cannot be.”) The researcher will gain a great deal of knowledge around the following areas:

  • Usability of existing software, hardware, and services
  • Frequency of use of existing software, hardware, and services
  • Emotional resonance of existing software, hardware, and services

This is useful information, particularly when attempting to fix and refine an existing solution with a “follow-on” release. The perspective is narrow because the researcher focuses on particular devices and the software functionality afforded by those devices.

In the third perspective, the researcher will learn implicitly about the current state, from a subjective standpoint. A particular service is offered for free or for a cost because a business decided it would be so. (“We can offer this service for free in order to build brand equity, which is worth more to us than the amount we could have made from charging for the service itself.”) The researcher will be able to gain a great deal of knowledge around the following areas:

  • Pricing, feature, and service structures other companies have deemed important
  • The way various artifacts, services, and systems have been positioned in the marketplace
  • The elements that have become ubiquitous to a particular business context

This is useful information when attempting to package and sell an already designed product, service, or system. The perspective is narrow. The researcher focuses on particular pricing structures, service offerings, and capability models from various competitors.

Figure 4.1— Various perspectives feeding design
Various perspectives feeding design

Each of these research methods focuses on a different aspect of an artifact, yet only the first—focusing on human behavior—emphasizes opportunity and potential. A focus on technology or product is destined to be constrained by realism ([for example], What can we do, given current abilities?). A focus on business or market is destined to be constrained by precedent ([for example], What are others doing, and how are they doing it?). In this way, design research that focuses on human behavior in a broad sense—not on a particular object or service—is the most effective at discovering data for innovation.

What Is Innovation?

Innovation has been used so liberally to define an entire profession that one is hard pressed to find a definition of the word itself. It is best used as either a simple qualifier that can be used to describe one facet of design—newness—or as a title for a robust and entirely different field.

Researchers Craig Vogel, Jonathan Cagan, and Peter Boatwright use an action-oriented context for their definition: Innovation “extends beyond invention of new technology and includes a thoughtful and insightful application, delivery, extension, or recombination of existing technologies … the key is that an innovation is a valued leap from the viewpoint of consumers whether or not it is incremental from the producer’s standpoint” (Vogel, Cagen, & Boatwright, 2005). This definition puts the consumer at the center of the “innovation universe,” and so it seems logical to then emphasize the value of design research. It is important to note, however, two major problems with viewing design research as the “keys to innovation.”

First, an innovative product is not simply new; it must be new and successful in the marketplace. This means that a new idea that fails—for example, Betamax or the Apple Newton—cannot be considered truly innovative. This is not simply a matter of semantics. Design-research methods will help a product team find the newness, but they will not help bring that newness to market. For this, traditional forms of design, engineering, supply-chain management, quality, and other production techniques are necessary, as are traditional forms of marketing, advertising, and distribution.

Second, and more important, design research presents only an opportunity, but it does not lead directly to the new idea or innovative concept. Most businesses understand how to conduct research (either quantitative or qualitative, and often marketing driven but occasionally user centered). Fewer businesses understand how to design something. But it is the rarest of companies that can continually drive innovative design practices and actually tie the newness to the research that was conducted. The link between initial investigative efforts and subsequent creative efforts is rarely, if ever, emphasized.

Design Synthesis Links Innovation Research and Design

Design synthesis is the link between the type of behavioral research described earlier—the potential for the future state—and the creation of something new. It is the most critical part of the creative process of design. Yet many designers rely only on their own limited experiences in approaching design synthesis.

In the generative stages of a design problem, designers often turn to pencil sketching on paper to think through the various nuances. For example, to visualize the appropriate form of a new touch-based cell phone, an industrial designer will sketch in three dimensions and in orthographic (or plan) view, often laying ideas on top of one another and switching between a stylistic approach to a more pragmatic, component-based investigation (looking at the actual elements that might need to be contained within the phone, such as a screen, a keypad, and so forth). At this ideation stage, the most high-level design problems have been defined, so the designer is problem solving. That is, the designer knows what he is creating—a phone, and not a toaster or a printer—and he knows the general constraints of the object (it has a certain-size touch screen and requires a certain-size battery to power it, and so forth).

But consider the previous stage, in which the high-level design problems are defined or identified. Why isn’t the designer creating a toaster, for example? It may be that the company in question has a high degree of competency and history in creating mobile phones. Or the company may have developed a new technological approach to building low-cost touch screens, so it is trying to find new applications for it. Or it may be that the company has identified, through research, a new opportunity for producing a touch-based phone.

Where do these discussions happen, and who has them? Typically, these types of considerations are made by directors of marketing and technology. These organizational structures control a big budget, which they (often independently) assign to whichever projects and programs they deem to be most strategic. Once they have made the decision, a product team is assembled. Eventually the product “trickles down” to the designer, who then begins to sketch what the item might look like.

But with the recent popularity of the phrases “design thinking” and “innovation,” designers have been asked to participate in these strategic conversations. Designers are increasingly expected to discuss not just how to solve a problem but also which problems to consider solving. They are increasingly pressured to speak with clarity about product launches, strategic product road mapping, competitive marketplace trends, short- and long-term revenue opportunities, partnerships and sponsorships, and other issues related to the business of design.

This presents a great opportunity for designers to move from a tactical role to a strategic role, where they are valued not only for their ability to produce but also for their ability to think and analyze. Yet even at these more fundamental levels of a design problem, there is an implicit expectation that the designer is designing—producing things that are visual and tangible, that trigger additional discussion and that evoke emotive responses. Essentially, if a designer is to enter the boardroom, she is expected to bring something unique to the boardroom discussions.

What are these unique things? What does the designer do or make while attempting to find and understand problems at a strategic level?

Design synthesis generally describes this aspect of design, where the designer is not yet solving a problem but is still doing, and making, in an attempt to understand complexity. Synthesis is an intellectual approach to creativity, and it can offer a rationalization for repeated business success and a set of tools for moving from research to specific and actionable design ideas. Because synthesis is tied to logical processes of managing complexity, it can be communicated throughout an organization and used to substantiate the seemingly “magical” world of design and design thinking.

A designer attempting to produce an innovative design will conduct research focusing on the experiential, emotional, and personal aspects of culture. This research will describe an opportunity—design research acts as problem finding. The research findings may be captured in PowerPoint presentations or described on a whiteboard. Either way, the research has allowed the design team to gather data within a constrained problem space.

Design is that act of problem solving—of appropriating formal qualities into a new design idea that fulfills the stated criteria and adds value to the human condition. Design synthesis, then, will translate the opportunity into specific design criteria, or a set of elements that must be present to afford a cohesive and concrete design. The synthesis will describe the solution; design synthesis is the process of problem understanding. Although data gesture toward an opportunity, data are frequently thick and convoluted, overwhelming and incomplete. The data alone lack contextualized meaning, and so it is difficult to decode data in their “raw” state. Synthesis is a sensemaking process that helps the designer move from data to information, and from information to knowledge. 

Figure 4.2— Problem finding, understanding, and solving
Problem finding, understanding, and solving

Partner at Modernist Studio

Austin, Texas, USA

Jon KolkoFounder and Director of Austin Center for Design, an educational institution in Texas, Jon was previously a Professor of Interaction and Industrial Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was instrumental in shaping the Interaction and Industrial Design undergraduate and graduate programs. He has worked extensively in the professional world of interaction design, solving the problems of Fortune 500 clients. Jon’s work has encompassed the worlds of consumer electronics, mobile, Web, supply-chain management, demand planning, and customer-relationship management, and he has worked with clients such as AT&T, HP, Nielsen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Ford, IBM, Palm, and other leaders of the Global 2000. The underlying theme of these projects: the creation of solutions that are useful, usable, and desirable. Jon’s present research investigates the process of design, with a focus on design synthesis and the creation of meaning. Jon sits on the Board of Directors for the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) and is the Editor-in-Chief of interactions magazine, an ACM publication. He is the author of the book Thoughts on Interaction Design, which was published by Morgan Kaufmann. In late 2010, Oxford University Press will publish his forthcoming book, Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis.  Read More

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