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Book Review: A Designer’s Research Manual

June 17, 2019

Cover: A Designer's Research ManualAs a design discipline, User Experience frequently gets lumped together with visual or graphic design—often to the chagrin of UX professionals. Of course, this tendency reinforces and is reinforced by the common belief that design is defined by its deliverables. Further, the plethora of books, periodicals, annuals, and Web sites that worship the unique style and fashion of graphic design rather than process and outcomes encourages the description of design in terms of its deliverables.

The high-water mark—or maybe low-water mark—for this philosophy was probably the late 1990s, when graphic designers pushed the limits of legibility in pursuit of distinctive style. An exemplar of that trend might be the celebrity graphic designer David Carson, who described the “intuitiveness” of his visual design work, while pushing the limits of legibility. As an author and speaker, he’s made a number of statements discussing his design philosophy.

“For some reason I have a visual intuition that allows me to design things in an interesting way, and I don’t know where that came from.”—David Carson

Here’s a quotation that is sure to be a favorite for this audience:

“If you have no intuitive sense of design, then call yourself an information architect and only use Helvetica.” —David Carson

Of course, these quotations are from just one celebrity graphic designer, but they are emblematic of a belief that design is about intuition and style rather than solving problems through a rational process. We could more appropriately attribute this viewpoint to an artist’s serving his ego rather than a professional designer who solves problems for people. This misunderstanding of what design really is ultimately makes design less accessible to people. It posits that design professionals must have some innate ability that they cannot share with others—that they were born with a better sense of style than other people. However, in reality, we need more people to be conversant in design and more appreciative of its value.

It wasn’t always this way. While expressiveness in visual design has always existed to some extent, there has also been an understanding that design is a process that leads to good outcomes for people. That is, design seeks outcomes for specific audiences beyond an artist’s taste.

Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady provide a strong contrast to designers who espouse style over substance. They are faculty members at Cleveland State University and Kent State University, respectively, and both are graduates of the Visual Communication Design school at KSU. (Full disclosure, Ken is a fellow faculty member at Kent State University, and both Ken and Jenn were graduate students when I was an undergrad there.) They are prolific writers and presenters, and Jenn was recently recognized as a Fellow by the Cleveland Chapter of AIGA for her leadership and contributions to the design community. Their first book, A Designer’s Research Manual, returns to the idea that the role of graphic designers is not just to create pretty or visually interesting artifacts but to solve problems using a process that we call design.

A Designer’s Research Manual might provide the antidote to design that pleases designers themselves more than their audience. Over the course two hundred pages, the book provides a foundation for understanding the role of design and how research informs design outcomes. While the authors have written the book from the perspective of graphic design, its message is applicable for anyone who cares about designing solutions for people.

Book Specifications

Title: A Designer’s Research Manual

Author: Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady

Formats: Paperback, Kindle

Publisher: Rockport Publishers

Published: July 1, 2017, 2nd edition

Pages: 208

ASIN: B074HFZ5YK

The Value of Design

Debates over design styles, aesthetics, and whose sense of visual taste should win out frequently become heated and emotional—and are often devoid of objectivity. A comment we’ve heard in conversations among designers is: “Clients don’t get it.” In reality, it’s the designers who might not get it. I tend to think that designers’ traditional focus on craftsmanship, technique, and style rather than value informs these clichés.

Discussions about why it’s important to include design in business decisions and why designers make the decisions they do should occur within the context of value creation for organizations, not as a claim that people with the word designer in their job title have an inalienably better sense of taste than others do.

But what is the right way to value design? Jenn and Ken provide a comprehensive collection of frameworks and maturity models that you can use to explain the high-level value of design in the abstract, but also to evaluate design within your organization or for clients. While I was already familiar with the framework the Design Management Institute (DMI) uses, the book presented additional systems.

Examples

A book describing the value of design and research methods would seem incomplete if it didn’t include credible examples.

One of my favorite examples comes from IBM—whose oft-quoted Thomas Watson Jr. stated: “Good design is good business.” Of course, that’s a nice, declarative statement, but this book presents a fantastic, detailed examination of the use of design at IBM. Particularly inspiring is IBM’s investment in design research. (A plethora of design research content available on IBM’s Web site.)

Another great example is Hyatt. The book includes a case study of the Hyatt Place concept. I’ve spent more than a few nights in hotels, including Hyatts. The example Jenn and Ken’s book presents illustrates how research informs design decisions. The insights that come from persona development—for example, the business traveler who has traveled through hell and is looking for a comfortable, welcoming place—illustrates the power of research-based design. It is unlikely that the designers who created Hyatt Place—a rebrand of AmeriSuites—would have achieved such successful outcomes without the insights that came from their research.

Conclusion

The authors of all the books I’ve reviewed have diverse backgrounds. Jenn and Ken—like myself—come from a visual-design background. The UX-design profession is fortunate to have such a broad collection of voices, spanning technical writers, visual designers, front-end developers, psychologists, and more. As I noted earlier, we need more diverse voices contributing to design processes that lead to powerful outcomes.

A Designer’s Research Manual is a comprehensive starting point for UX designers who want to integrate research into their work. The book provides a sound foundation for designers whose goal is to deliver value over style. It is not a how-to manual for conducting specific types of research. If that’s what you need, in most cases, you should seek out additional resources. But, if you are looking for a useful survey of design-research methods or want to refresh the research methods in you UX tool chest, Jenn and Ken provide a good collection of tools and tactics. 

Lecturer, UXD Program at Kent State University

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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