by Steven

People who are not formally trained in design disciplines are getting greater exposure to the design field, and that’s good. 

But sometimes those people, let’s call them ‘non-designers’ to keep things simple, lack something which designers develop early on in their training and careers: the ability to embrace uncertainty.  For designers, the idea that something might fail is a fear we face up to early on, and learn to live with. Most big ideas, no matter how confidently presented, run parallel with a private dialogue that goes something like “this could well be wrong” or “I don’t know – it was just an idea really”.

Whereas, people who are trained to rely on balanced spreadsheets, and who might now be looking after multi-million pound budgets for design-led projects, want something that gives them the same level of certainty as that neat spreadsheet. A designer shrugging their shoulders doesn’t cut it. The trouble with design research is that it can offer a false sense of certainty: “We did this research, and we proved that X is true”.

And there is a risk that spreadsheet-thinkers will put an impossible burden on proof onto the design researcher.

But are research results really certain – and should certainty be the goal of research? 

They are not, and they should not.

Research is about identifying shadowy areas of understanding and attempting to cast more light upon them; about peering through a keyhole to interpret what lies beyond. 

We keep peering, and trying as many different keyholes as we can, but we cannot enter that room. We can only keep making ever more informed hypotheses about its nature and content and life. That’s research. 

To act on it takes guts, because its outputs are never certain. 

Good designers know how to triangulate and extrapolate findings into insightful and empathetic design decisions, and good product owners know how to trust a designer acting within this liminal space. 

Bad product owners, it follows, do the opposite – and seek to lean on researchers for evidence and proof. 

No good design will come of that. 

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