September 9, 2014
At An Event Apart Conference 2014 in Chicago, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by Mule Design’s Erica Hall titled “Just Enough Research.” Hall spoke of how, without research, assumptions within the design process could create critical points of failure further along in a project. However, research is often perceived as a colossal time and budget sink; a major project phase that needs significant planning, hours of work, and a pile of cash. Unsurprisingly, this perception has people avoiding research in favor of work perceived as more important.
However, work that is not based on research is risky. By relying on assumptions there is a larger chance that the end result could be suboptimal or could even fail entirely if an assumption is incorrect. We ensure our success when we base our decisions on well-formed conclusions rather than gut feeling or hypothesis.
Ideally, research is a major phase of every project. What isn’t always realized is that all research need not be a massive data collecting and analyzing effort. It can be fast, simple, and done by everyone involved in a project at any time. If a decision is an assumption, it can be researched. In this golden age of light-speed information, opportunities to question assumptions and to do fast and easy research throughout the day are everywhere.
Search engines can make research instant. Google is a quick and powerful research tool. Perhaps there is a fact that seems doubtful in a bit of copy. Google it. If that fact is false, you just saved money and time from being spent on correcting it and apologizing for it after the fact. A mere few seconds of research time can ultimately save hours of correction work.
“Just Enough Research” in the Day-to-Day of a Designer
As a designer, I have incorporated the concept Just Enough Research into my daily work and decisions in many ways. One such way is in regards to typeface decisions for a design. To reach a typeface decision, a designer will often compare a typeface to other typefaces on their computer. This bit of experimentation is research. Once the typefaces have been narrowed down to a select few, the next step for many is to make a choice and go forward. However, taking a moment to examine this small step in the process may reveal an opportunity to use research to turn this solution, which at this point is merely an educated hypothesis, into a fully supported conclusion.
Think about this decision. Even with all the wealth of knowledge accrued over the course of a standard design education and career, a designer cannot know everything there is to know about a typeface. How do we really support our typeface decision? Research. Simply google the typeface name. This will reveal a wealth of connotations and associations for the typeface. If this bit of research refutes your decision, say you find out the typeface is associated with some controversial company’s branding, than hooray! You’ve avoided creating a mess that might surface later on in a project. If this bit of research supports your decision, then great! You can go forward knowing that it was the right choice rather than just thinking it. Either way, it is a quick and easy win.
As we make decisions, we make assumptions constantly. We should question our assumptions just enough to identify problems before they happen and refine our solutions as we create them. Embrace research at every level, and the value of time spent researching, no matter what the scale of the research, will add up fast and ultimately lead to a more nearly perfect final outcome.