4 Ways to Choose Design Methods with Intention

By Jannis Hegenwald
Experience Researcher

Originally published on JannisHegenwald.com

Methods and tools are the subject of an important and ever-present discussion. This week, I wrote down some thoughts on how I view them, how I use them, and why I believe a clear point of view on this topic is critical for designers.

I often get asked about the best methods and tools for design research. Just the other day, we hosted a Lunch ’n' Learn for anthropology students and one of the participants asked, “What methods should I know before I apply somewhere? What are the best methods to have in my toolkit?” And while there definitely are a few methods that anyone applying for a design job should be familiar with, I was hesitant to give any recommendations, because I didn’t want to lead them toward a fundamentally wrong understanding of methods and tools.

But let me explain: One thing I am increasingly experiencing in the design space is that we are quick to jump on the bandwagon of tools and methods, both good and bad. We’ve declared Comics Sans a bad font and the hamburger menu bad interaction design. Anyone using them automatically becomes a bad designer. Photoshop has increasingly gotten a bad rep while Sketch and Axure have become the poster children for modern UX design. Meetings and email are considered a barrier to productivity, while Slack amplifies collaboration. I’ve seen the same happen in design research, with people denouncing surveys or the NPS, for example. I still remember the shocked faces when we conducted our first focus group and started using brand archetypes.

The problem with these types of statements is that they are treating methods as if they were independent of their context and innately better or worse than others. And that’s the fundamental misunderstanding I wanted to not expose the students to. Methods and tools are neutral by principle; they are neither good nor bad. Their value depends utterly on how we use them. So if we’re using an ax to open a bottle of wine, it’s going to do really poorly in the same way that the NPS won’t tell you much about why customers buy your product. At the same time, the ax will do really well for woodchopping and the NPS can be a great tool to identify which customers are most vocal about their frustration. (alt.: At the same time, Comic Sans might be the right font for a birthday party and surveys are a great tool if we’re looking for low-cost, self-reported data.)

“If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
— Abraham Maslow

It’s very important for us as designers and researchers to be agnostic and deliberate about our methods and tools. Because only if we’re deliberate we can avoid falling into the trap of comfortably producing the same results over and over again. And yes, it can be difficult, because it’s intimidating to try new methods and it may sound like we need to invest a lot of time into planning our work. But being deliberate about your methods and tools doesn’t mean spending weeks planning. It doesn’t mean slow. It means working with intent and being clear about the problem you’re trying to solve.

So how can we be more deliberate about our methods and tools? Here are four simple ways that have helped me stay aware of my natural bias and choose methods more intentionally:

When we encounter a design problem, our mind often jumps to a certain way of solving for it. It’s important to be aware of that, and instead of directly following going back to defining which questions we actually need to answer. In doing so, we automatically become a lot more deliberate because our methods follow our questions.

The more methods and tools you are able to draw from, the more likely you are to find one that fits, and the more refined your choice becomes. One way to build your toolkit is to listen and learn from what other people are doing, both in design and other industries. This doesn’t need to be directed, but can just be an exploration of how other people approach finding information.

Try to work with people from different personal and professional backgrounds. This will inevitably enrich your perspective and help your team in deciding on the right methods to use. One thing to keep in mind is that it’s important to actively foster an environment where team members feel valued, not despite, but because of, their unique perspectives.

There’s no certainty that you will get the right kind of results, even with a lot of planning and experience. If you’re on the fence about a method, try to find a cheap and fast way to test it and give it a try. And if it doesn’t play out, don’t be afraid to admit that your findings are not very helpful. You and your team will probably have learned something valuable nonetheless.

Have thoughts, comments or questions? Send me a tweet @jannishegenwald

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