For a long time, I’ve wanted to understand how ethnographically driven research is different from market research. While I intuitively understood the differences between the two, I didn’t take the time to fully sort it out.
I finally found someone who not only clearly explains the differences, but provides greater clarity and depth to my understanding of design research.
I love the way Panthea Lee of reBoot contrasts market research and design research in, Design Research: What Is It and Why Do It? Panthea explains that the primary difference is that market research treats people as consumers - wage earners with an income to dispose on a product or service, while design research treats people as users - humans who are trying to fulfill everyday needs through what means they see as possible.
“Market research identifies and acts upon optimal market and consumer leverage points to achieve success. Its definition of success is not absolute, though metrics are often financial. Design research, on the other hand, is founded in the belief that we already know the optimal market and consumer leverage points: human needs. Unearthing and satisfying those needs is thus the surest measure of success. Through this process, we earn people’s respect and loyalty.”
Panthea’s essay doesn’t put a value judgement on market research, rather it makes the boundaries between both types of research more explicit. This clarity allows researchers the space to be explicit about when they are wearing the market research or the design research hat. Sometimes a project needs to be considered from a market and a design perspective. So this is when this chart below becomes super useful!
Reading Panthea’s essay gave me an “AHA” moment - it’s a rare brain moment when you discover a new theory or a new thinker or a new perspective. Before reading her essay, everything was messy in my head - it kinda looked like this below - lots of circles with appendages and overlapping fields:
These are all the fields that have influenced my research interests.
- Sociology - theory, community, intra-personal communication, class, power, digital divide, network society, mobility, cultural studies, geography, communication, new media, migration, cities, digital divide, class
- Ethnography - Anthropology, methods, follow the object, stories
- Human Computer Interaction (HCI) - Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), Ubicomp, ethnomethdology, psychology,
- Design Thinking: Technology Usability, Business feasibility, Human Values, User Experience, products, services, design
- User Experience - professional work, testing, focus groups, design
- Market Research - consumers, trends, predictions, advertising, brands, personas
But something was missing. I couldn’t figure out how to connect my sociological and design interests to my previous work as a community organizer and digital media consultant with low-income communities. I came across public sociology and ICT4D, but those didn’t make things more clear.
But I get it now! I understood how my ethnographic skills, theoretical interests, and social passion intersect at the nexus of design research! I want to respond to people’s needs, not just a company’s needs or even intellectual/theoretical needs. Design research doesn’t exclude market or intellectual research, it simply prioritizes the user’s needs first and foremost. As the co-founder, Zac Brisson says in Why Services?:
At Reboot, we like theory — sociopolitical, socioeconomic, you name it — as much as the next social enterprise. But we are also practitioners, working hand-in-hand with governments, international organizations, non-profits, and the private sector on realizing social change. We understand and support the role of advocacy and policy — some of us still bear battle scars from past lives in these arenas — but as an organization, we are more concerned with the moments where the rubber meets the road. With those tangible points where outcomes are made.
Hence our fixation on creating better services.
From what I’ve seen of reBoot’s projects, they involve technology, but they don’t seem to do this at the expense of the users. In my own research on social uses of technology, I am super critical of institutional or programmatic efforts that priortize the technology over users or that treat technology as the magical solution. Panthea also shares a similar view. In an article about ReBoot, ‘Iterate, iterate, iterate’: Reboot re-thinks social service delivery through design,” she says:
“There is greater power in citizens’ hands right now, as a result of changes in technology over the past couple of decades. I think the challenge is – you have one group who wants technology as the solution, as a silver bullet. One of the hardest parts about what we do is trying to talk people away from technology as a default. There’s a lot of talk around ICT4D – information and communications technology for development. Technology becomes central to programming. We’re trying to talk people away from that.”
I couldn’t agree with Panthea more on the point she made.
A common theme on Cultural Bytes is my critique of any ICT4D-like efforts because it doesn’t go far enough in prioritizing users’ culture or needs. There is a lot of money in programs that propose technological solutions and it is difficult to ask people to consider to step back when their mind is already set or when donors have already committed millions in funding. What’s sad is that so much money is wasted on developing technologies without the user in mind or with misleading assumptions about their needs. A thoroughly authentic implementation of design research approach would help prevent this from happening.
Some other reasons why I love design research:
1.) absolutely cares about users to the core with great compassion and working with them to develop real-world services to implement
2.) values research - deep research - qual and quant
3.) values spending time on analysing the data to develop insights
4.) creates concrete services to test out of research - output is actionable
5.) puts in time to builds testing into their process but doesn’t waste time in ongoing testing, create what Panthea calls “evidence-based decision-making
6.) projects are tied to evaluation that is based on user fulfillment
7.) prioritizes listening before doing
I’m really excited to think about how to use design research for my personal goals of
- wanting to work alongside low-income/marginalized communities to create the lives they want to live
- bringing more compassion and awareness for their everyday lives
So design research is a new topic that I will be blogging about on Cultural Bytes! yahh to new ideas! And big thanks to David Sasaki for blogging about reBoot in his blogpost, [Youth Unemployment] What Mexico and the USA Can Learn from Austria. I am beyond happiness to find such a smart, considerate, and compassionate organization.