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Book Review: Design Research

Book | Author | Review

By , SAP Labs India, SAP User Experience – February 2, 2010

In this review, Visvapriya Sathiyam takes a personal look at the book Design Research, edited by Brenda Laurel. Please note that there is also another review of the book on this site.



Cover of Design Research     

Brenda Laurel (Ed.)
Design Research: Methods and Perspectives

MIT Press, 2003
ISBN: 0262122634

Design: General



Photo of Breanda Laurel Brenda Laurel's career in human-computer interaction spans over twenty-five years. She has worked as a software designer, producer, and researcher for companies including Atari, Activision, and Apple. Laurel has published extensively on topics including interactive fiction, computer games, autonomous agents, virtual reality, and political and artistic issues in interactive media.



The book Design Research, edited by Brenda Laurel, investigates into the research methodologies that can be brought into the process of design. This is a compilation of many essays written by anthropologists, designers, and industry experts who have reaped the benefits of research in their organizations. The importance of deriving insightful and indepth data about user needs from a multi-disciplinary approach to research is what gets highlighted in each of these essays. The essays are divided into four sections.

The Sections

Section 1: People

This section brings out perspectives of design research by people who are mainly anthropologists like Tim Plowman, Christopher Ireland, Eric Dishmann, and Brenda Laurel. Tim dives into the history and future of ethnography as a powerful tool critical to current day design practice. Another essay by Christopher Ireland sights different types of ethnographic approaches such as digital ethnography, field ethnography, photo ethnography, ethno futurism (understanding trends and big picture) and "real world" ethnographic enactments (a form of structured reality shows that study people in simulated environments). A couple of essays by Eric and Brenda elaborate on performance ethnography and its cousins design improvisation and informance. In performance ethnography, researchers create characters and enact users in a theatrical environment to understand and elicit user needs, emotional values and behaviors. As an analogy it is very similar to how children enact being moms and dads to learn how to be adults.
(If you are interested diving deep, consider reading Brenda Laurel's other book Computer as Theatre)

Section 2: Form

Designers in this section talk about how research was used to understand various factors of form in design – sensory anomalies, perception of decorative elements, design writing, spontaneous cinema, and game forms. I particularly enjoyed reading Emma Westcoot's article on "Zero-Game Manifesto" that definitely broke my feminist bias against games and gaming technology.

Section 3: Process

In this section, industry experts narrate their experiences in using design research for building successful products in the market. For instance, Darrel Rhea brings out the importance of using "divergent thinking" (using a dimensional and multi-disciplinary approach) to identify opportunities and problem areas right in the beginning. She then recommends consolidating the findings using "convergent thinking" to identify user needs and functions. We often miss this point due to stringent schedules and rush into delivering design without detailed research, reflection (divergent thinking), and refinement (convergent thinking) in that order. Another essay by Nathan Shedroff explains some interesting and very different methods of designing effective experience design like systematic analysis and creating taxonomies, dream analysis, observation through games, and using experience design cards.

Section 4: Action

This section brings out some of the real world experiences of designers using one or many of the research methodologies. I particularly like the interview with Will Wright, creator of SimCity. He highlights how he uses dyads (testing with two people who know each other, for instance, friends or couples) to get quality feedback from users. His observation is that when two users start conversing while performing a task together, the unarticulated usability and cognitive issues in the UI come to light that cannot be elicited in single user testing. Also enlightening was his stream of thought on how most players of The Sims ironically find the game very materialistic while at a very subtle level, it is grounded on a parody of consumerism. The interview is available online and I highly recommend it to all.

What I found most relevant to implement in our work, is the list of five most important things required to create a culture of design research, by Eric Zimmermann:

  1. A space that encourages design research: an open physical layout at work that enables free communication (includes being able to peep into other's monitors with no barriers in-between in an agile style), wall size discussion boards, active intranet collaboration to exchange ideas and information
  2. An exhaustive design research library
  3. An active group of employees who teach courses, participate in panels, and give talks in the local community
  4. The budget to creating or attending design events, exhibitions, and conferences
  5. A work schedule that can encourage and accommodate side projects and design experimentation

What the Book Does Not Cover

Two topics do not have specific focus in this book: Participatory design and quantitative research. Though participatory design has a mention in one of the essays, there is no information on how it is conducted, best practices, and success stories. Stancy Purpura brings out the need for quantitative techniques as the most critical step to standardize and validate usability findings from qualitative techniques done with eight, ten, or fifteen users. Without doing this, she believes products run the risk of not scaling to mass consumption. While this is interesting to know, I did not read any indepth narrations on how quantitative techniques were used to supplement qualitative analysis.

Who Should Read this Book?

This book is an essential read for newcomers and amateurs in the field of design research. It is also a good source for experienced professionals to know the perspectives of specialists from multiple disciplines – gaming, writing, anthropology, and ethnography, all at one go. My only caution: This book is definitely not a quickie (owing to its font size especially). It is time-consuming and is a compilation of many authors, all of whom do not necessarily have an engaging style of writing. Honestly, I did skip a few essays that I found repetitive, but I guarantee that the book will tell you something new to try out in your next research project, something insightful, and something to reflect on.

Bon appétit.


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