Challenges of Design Research

Design research is frequently misunderstood or viewed as lacking in value. Why? It’s odd, considering that design can drive innovation. I can give you a perfect example:

This week my EdTech cohort was asked to read the research article: Making Learning Fun: Quest Atlantis, A Game Without Guns (Barab et al, 2005). While reading, we were to keep in mind article type, structure, intent, audience, and authority. Primarily, we were to determine the type of article and post a brief critique. The article was theoretical in nature; a review of R&D (Research & Design) methods used in the author’s educational game design. I could relate to this topic!

I posted a logical critique and was startled by the rigid, negative critiques (“it’s garbage”, “worthless” etc.). Most critiqued on quantitative research practices, citing a lack of scientific evidence to support the methods. Here’s the kicker: the article wasn’t a scientific (quantitative) research paper. It’s focus was R&D practice, which relies heavily on ethnography (a qualitative approach) to triangulate and synthesize new designs. Apples to oranges.

It’s risky to make assumptions, especially if your only frame of reference is one field. For me, this reinforced a previous observation that researcher’s need to be aware of the paradigm(s) in which they operate. Otherwise, rather than determine the research type to interpret objectively, you may typify your research paradigm (and communicate your lack of objectivity) to others:

Typ·i·fyOxford Dictionary

1. To be characteristic or a representative example of.
2. To represent; symbolize.

On the other hand, designers too often fail to articulate their methods clearly in relation to other disciplines. They rely can rely too heavily on qualitative practices and forget R&D can be a balanced mixed-methods approach. This remains a significant problem in the design community. I’m fortunate my design training was interdisciplinary at Emily Carr. Design streams learn methods from anthropology, sociology, arts, technology and sciences. I was taught to recognize and select appropriate research methods (quantitative/qualitative and mixed-methods) based on research goals. Recognizing that I have my own mixed-methods and practice-specific biases to overcome, I’m determined to learn all I can to avoid these pitfalls.

Barab, Sasha, et al. “Making learning fun: Quest Atlantis, a game without guns.” Educational Technology Research and Development 53.1 (2005): 86-107.

“Typify.” Oxford Dictionaries. (n.d.). Oxford University Press, Web. Retrieved 19th September, 2014 from

Image source: Kenny Louie. (2009). It was an ugly night. [Image]. Retrieved from Flickr under CC by 2.0.

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