Design, Disruption, and Drunk Usability Testing
The Elements of Design Studio Experience

Making Design Research Less of a Mystery

Clue by TimmyGUNZ on flickr

There are a few eerie similarities between the plotting of mystery novels and how designers should document design research findings.

When reading a mystery novel, you're tramping along with a sloppily dressed, overworked, and weary detective, turning over stone after stone to discover exactly whom perpetrated a grisly murder, blood-curdling assault, or big-ticket bank heist. By assembling the various clues gathered over the course of the narrative, the detective will invariably uncover the appropriate patterns of information—via their powerful use of deductive logic—that points to the most likely explanation for how the crime was perpetrated. They then validate their most likely hypotheses by grilling their suspects in interrogation rooms or breaking down doors into secret lairs, where the remains of their last crime are in full display for all to see.

Design researchers don't work exactly like professional detectives. We don't sit down with their users and start asking them point-blank questions regarding a single moment in time, such as, "Exactly where were you on the night of November 17th, when Joe Coxson was found floating face-down in a kiddie pool?"

We don't consider the users as criminals, having perpetrated crimes against the state—our clients?—that must be solved. The crimes are the points of friction that go remarked (or unremarked) about the course of our subject's lives, in using the tools that surround them, and in the myths and beliefs that drive their everyday behavior. Our methods of detection are geared towards being sponges, soaking up both the large-scale and minute details that indicate layers of behavior that may have gone unremarked in the design and everyday use of various products, services, and interactive systems. To quote a passage near the end of Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers (trans. Steven T. Murray):

Every time Wallander stepped into someone's home, he felt as though he were looking at the front cover of a book that he had just bought. The flat, the furniture, the pictures on the walls, and the smells were just the title. Now he had to start reading."

During the pure research portion of the design process, we are behaving more like scientists than creative thinkers, "reading" how people behave within their lived stories. Often, we catch a whiff of failure and shame in people's encounters with tools that seem quite easy to us to fix. (OXO, could you please fix the fancy can opener at work? You know, the one that causes fits of cursing and frustration for each person that uses it…) Solutions come naturally from those situations. At other times, we observe large-scale misperceptions that seem more grounded in popular opinion than lived experience. Those can be harder to correct, as they are indicative of larger, more systemic issues than a faulty switch on an MP3 player. You can often change the product, but you can't easily change the culture that it sits within.

So how is the design research process anything like the plotting of a mystery novel? Let's talk about the "B Story." If you read a lot of mysteries or watch any kind of thrillers on TV or in the movie theater, then you've experienced this storytelling tactic. There are always at least two stories in a mystery:

  1. The "A Story," which follows your narrator from discovering the crime to solving it, often in real time—though there are novels that play with time and space quite elegantly, such as Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast.
  2. The "B Story," which is the story of the crime's perpetrator, from the time they initiated the crime until they are apprehended. Details of the "B Story" are sprinkled through the narrative, often woven with other details that point at other possible stories (a.k.a. red herrings). This story is pieced together by the detective, and the "B Story" is unfurled in the next to last chapter of the mystery novel by the detective to his audience—or by the criminal, as they gloat over their accomplishments before falling into the pit of fire. Mystery novels and thrillers that are considered more elegant in their construction, such as The Silence of the Lambs, weave together multiple stories or expose the "B Story" in novel ways to create extra tension.

A good way to visualize the interaction between an "A Story" and a "B Story" is to think of them like two clocks that are moving at different speeds. The "A Story" clock moves forward relentlessly, while the "B Story" is ticking away and influencing the "A Story." (Such as when the criminals attempt to to scrub clues or stop the detectives from uncovering the truth directly.) By the end of the novel, the two stories click into place. If the overall novel or movie was well plotted, then the "B story" was staring you directly in the face. The Sixth Sense was a classic example of this effect in action.

There can be multiple or unreliable "B Stories." Remember the Clue movie? Or that classic by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? The answers are always hidden in plain sight, much like Dupin's purloined letter—you just don't have the right frame of reference to place the existing clues in context. It's human nature to take any kind of incomplete data and try to fit the pieces together into some kind of coherent story. Our clients often do this for us, providing us with what they feel is a narrative that explains their customer's behavior in ways that often feel quite logical.

As designers, we're always hired to discover the "B Story." But to do our job correctly, we have to start by telling our "A Story," which is comprised of what we're trying to discover through various research activities, whom we spoke with over the course of the research, what data we collected, and what insights we gleaned from "reading" those encounters. This is where we often can articulate the value of primary or generative research—by identifying problems that weren't apparent to the client through their own experience.

By being strong storytellers through the research process, we'll be able to take our client through the "A Story" (observation and detection) to reveal the "B Story" (design opportunities) that was latent in their business problems.

This is where the mystery novel metaphor is an interesting analogue to our design process. We're interested in deducing why a crime occurred, then preventing that crime from happening again in the future, for all possible instances of that crime. For a design researcher, the "B Story" must represent plausible futures that improve upon observed crimes in the past. It's more than just improving what seems wrong in the mind of the user. It's crafting an entirely new storyline that seems

Here's a good litmus test for you: if you've documented your design research properly, your recommendations will align well with the patterns reported upon through the research and planning process. The answers will seem apparent, even though they weren't at any other time through the process.

And if you do a poor job of telling both the "A Story" and the "B Story"? The client will be scratching their head at the end of the engagement, not quite understanding the relationship between the designed outcome and the stated problem at hand. At the end of your research, the only mystery for your client should be the discrete details around how they will move from your recommendations into implementation.


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