April 07, 2016
The Importance of Design in Research
By: Connor Upton
  1. What made you decide to move from design into research?
    After working in the web industry for a few years I took some time out to do a masters in multimedia. Having the time to discuss ideas and experiment was really valuable. The projects we came up with just would not have happened if we’d been working to a commercial brief. A few years later the opportunity came up to do a design-related PhD, so I jumped at it. I’d always been interested in complex user interfaces like airplane cockpits and command centres and the research position allowed me to study the relevant design, psychology and scientific principles. I finished up with a doctorate in cognitive systems engineering which allowed me to move into industrial R&D.

  2. Is research important for design?
    All designers are trained in aesthetic research, whether it’s keeping notebooks or experimenting with different media, but formal research training is becoming more important, especially in service and digital product design. As the role of design becomes more strategic, the design brief generally becomes less defined, so knowing how to conduct an interview or observational study or how to properly evaluate a user interface is a useful skill. These skills really become necessary when designing control systems where failures have serious consequences.

    Beyond the skills, paying attention to research gives you upstream insight into trends that can potentially change our whole industry. For example, if you consider the commoditisation of GUI design into standard libraries along with the growing trend in conversational UIs you can predict that the design skills repertoire is going to need to adjust in the next few years.

  3. Is design important for research?
    More and more so. From the start of the 20th century academic research became increasingly specialized and less accessible to non-domain experts, but in the past few decades there’s been a huge growth in multidisciplinary research. This has largely been driven by a need for innovation and requires a mindset shift from observational and analytical techniques to a more disruptive and generative approach. Designers can play a key role here as catalysts to the research process. We tend not to think about it too much, but the design artefacts we generate are actually hypotheses about how a complex system works and how it can be improved. By putting a new user interface or product into an environment we affect temporal, social and economic relationships. If you think about research into complex socio-technical systems like healthcare, industrial control systems, or education, an embedded design capability allows a team to rapidly test hypotheses in a very real way, while assessing the myriad of possible outcome on system behaviour.

  4. What advice would you give to designers who want to get into research?
    Make sure you’re ready to work in a very different way. You’ll need to be able to write your own design brief, you may be the only designer on a team, and aesthetic perfection is rarely an option. You’ll be spending more time at a whiteboard than heads down in photoshop.

    There are a lot of research opportunities out there, so make sure that you examine the institution, the role and the team carefully. If you join a university be prepared and eager to write academic papers about your design work. Try to join as a researcher rather than contractor if you want to have strategic impact. If you’re looking at industrial R&D, ensure that service or product design is a key part of the group’s culture. You should be keen to transform your design concepts into intellectual property and patents.

    Moving to research is a big jump but you’ll have the opportunity to work on interesting projects with experts in very different fields. If you’re confident in your design craft and want to expand into other areas, then research is really rewarding.

  5. What research question are you most interested in right now?
    How are we going to design interactions with cognitive agents? Artificial Intelligence is having a renaissance right now. It’s already part of our daily lives through online help and recommender systems, but this form of AI is still in its infancy. A lot of commercial AI is simply used for information retrieval in some form but I can see its role evolving from concierge (find me stuff) to colleague (help me do my job), to companion (who wouldn’t want a smart, cute robot around the house?). Each of these roles will require radically different approaches to systems design and this research territory is wide open.

  6. What do you love about your current job?
    The opportunity to work with big impactful sectors is really what attracted me to Accenture The Dock. Healthcare and Policing are challenging domains where design can have a major societal impact. This is an opportunity you don’t get on most commercial projects.

    The Centre’s operating model is really unique. By bringing design, engineering and subject matter expertise together we have a much better chance of solving the right problems in the right way and as a consequence I get to work with a bunch of really smart and diverse people. I’m also loving being located in Dublin’s Silicon Docks. I actually got to kayak to work up the river the other day, which was the best commute of my life.

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