Design Research

Mikio Kiura, Author of Design Research:
Build, Test, Repeat, Shares Probing Insights

At the Sony Creative Center, we invite people on the forefronts of various industries to give talks and share their insights with us.
Our latest guest was Mikio Kiura, the author of Design Research: Build, Test, Repeat and the head of ANKR DESIGN.
Taking us through the contours of design research, a topic that continues to garner more and more attention,
Kiura discussed the methods and effectiveness of the field and detailed the perspectives he's gained in
creating Japan’s first-ever systematic methodology for design research.
Read on for some of the highlights from Kiura’s online presentation, which took place in March 2021.

Mikio Kiura Service Designer, CEO, and Founder of ANKR DESIGN Inc. After graduating from the Division of Information Science at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology Graduate School of Science and Technology, Kiura started his career planning new products and businesses in fields like cameras, robotics, and healthcare at a major precision-equipment manufacturer. He then headed to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2016 to further his studies at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID). Completing his studies there the following year, he returned home to Japan and founded ANKR DESIGN Inc. Kiura's accolades include an MITOU Program "Super Creator" award from the IPA (Japan’s Information-technology Promotion Agency), Good Design Award, and YouFab Global Creative Award.

Learning from an experienced source about
what design research can do

I decided to write Design Research: Build, Test, Repeat in hopes of giving design research a solid foundation in Japan. To root the book in real-life experience, I drew on all the things I'd learned at design school abroad and the different projects I've worked back in Japan. That's what I’ll be focusing on in my talk today, too.

Before we begin, let me tell you a little bit more about myself. I worked at a precision-equipment manufacturer, where I helped plan new business ventures and projects, before going to study at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID) in 2016. While I was in Denmark, I learned a lot about research methods, digital fabrication equipment, programming, AI-driven prototyping, and lots of other parts of the design landscape. I finished up my studies in about a year, came back to Japan, and launched ANKR DESIGN, where I do design research, prototyping, and service design.

Mikio Kiura, Design Research: Build, Test, Repeat (BNN, 2020)

Defining "design research"

Before I get into explaining the ins and outs of design research, we have to start with the question of what design is to begin with. We could define it in lots of different ways, but I'm going to approach the topic today by conceiving of design as "giving tangible shape to non-existent concepts, locating new value for people, and creating meaningful products accordingly."

If you look at things from that perspective, design research basically means research for designing products. What does that mean? Well, to make something new or change things for the better through a product, you have to understand people and identify their needs. That's what the "research" element is for. People like to think of design as a means of solving problems. Going from there, I like to think of design research as a means of figuring out what problems need to be solved.

Let me take a moment here to lay out the basic process of product development, which we'll use to examine how design and design research fit into the bigger picture. Everything starts with exploring themes. The then process moves on to product planning, product development, mass production, quality assurance (QA), and delivery. That first step—theme exploration—is where design researchers do their work, zeroing in on fundamental questions like "What should we make?" It's a lot like brainstorming; design researchers generate ideas for devices with innovative features and one-of-a-kind designs and then start working with product designers to jell the concepts into actual form.

The roles of design researchers and designers
within the standard product-development process

However, the roles of design researcher stretch beyond the initial phases of product development. Working alongside the design team across the entire process, design researchers do work in three main modes.

The first type is "exploratory research," or thinking about what kinds of product or business the team should design. Second is "generative research," which focuses on narrowing down the overarching themes and digging deeper into the specifics of the project. Finally, design researchers also do "evaluative research" to assess the completed product or service and help chart out a course for future improvements.

Whatever kind of design research you’re doing, though, the key element is always the same: asking the right questions. In other words, you have to pinpoint the specific problem that you want the design to address. Imagine you're designing stairs. Your question, then, would be how to design a good set of stairs, and your answer might be an escalator—a moving set of stairs. But when you expand the question from "how to design a good set of stairs" to "how to design a way of getting from one floor to the next," you open up your range of possible answers from standard stairs and escalators to elevators and fire poles, even. The questions you ask have an enormous impact on the results you get.

Why do design research?

Now, why is design research emerging into the spotlight these days?
One reason is that the horizons for design are always expanding. When you delve into the history of design, you can trace how the field has grown over the years: it started off with the design of graphics and tangible, material things like industrial products, next went on to encompass interactions and the experience-oriented elements of services, and finally expanded to include the entire systems providing the framework for products and services—intangible components. You can see the breadth of that scope when you look at a service like food delivery, a business area that happens to be a highly competitive at the moment. The value in a food-delivery service doesn't just lie in the website or the app; it's in how the service and the system behind it take a customer's order, send it to the store, relay the details to the delivery workers, and make sure the customer gets what they want to eat. The system itself is the product, in other words.

From Design Research: Build, Test, Repeat (BNN, 2020), a diagram showing the expansion of the design field.

Another reason is the abundance of new business opportunities. With consumer lifestyles constantly diversifying and people always looking for new experiences, emerging players in the business sphere have more openings for success. Tesla, an up-and-coming force in the auto industry, is a perfect example of that dynamic.

Businesses are also confronting the "VUCA"*1 of an ambiguous, uncertain future. Amid pervasive unpredictability, companies are looking for effective ways of determining their next moves as market competition grows increasingly volatile.

*1 VUCA: An acronym for "Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity," VUCA is a business term reflecting the challenges businesses face as technological progress, fluid social changes, and a host of other factors make it increasingly difficult to predict and respond to conditions via conventional approaches.

How does design research help?

That brings us to the question of how design research can make a positive impact in that context.
First, design research gives businesses subjective, independent viewpoints. Up to this point, the prevailing approach to design has followed a pretty scientific, logic-oriented track: collect data, use your findings to form rational hypotheses, and then arrive at appropriate conclusions. The problem with the standard way of doing things, however, is that data-driven objectivity doesn't give businesses that much of an advantage anymore. Information is more accessible than ever, and basically everyone can get their hands on the same data. What businesses now need is an approach that helps formulate design questions with a more subjective understanding of people's lives.

To make the most of subjectivity, team-based creation is essential. Products are always taking on new layers of complexity, which means that companies need to get lots of specialists in different areas on board during the initial stages of development instead of just getting feedback after the fact. Projects for developing relatively straightforward healthcare products, for example, have generally been able to focus on patients and doctors to figure out the requirements they'd need to meet. When you’re working on a more complicated project, though, you have to take so much more into consideration: the communities that patients belong to, other professionals in medicine and government, and other factors. Utilizing design research gives you a clearer understanding of the issues that all those people are facing, helps you pin down the requirements for the product, and lets you tackle the design process from a more diverse team perspective.

Transparency is another big part of the picture. Design research follows a series of clearly defined steps and processes, charting out specific courses for interviews, observational studies, analyses, insight extraction, problem identification (and opportunity identification). By establishing and sharing those processes across the entire team, you help the individual members take ownership in the overall project and learn more fully as they start giving shape to the project plan from early on.

Examples of design research conducted on people, including interviews and observations. (Photo by Mikio Kiura)

The process and methods of
design research

In terms of the actual product-development process, design research helps guide the effort through three key phases: locating optimal opportunities, involving more people, and testing hypotheses (prototyping). Real dialogue fosters an understanding of what people need. Analyzing that input helps you ask the right questions. With that, you start exploring approaches and figuring out whether they're the right fit for the questions you're asking. By keeping that cycle going, you can hone the overall focus of the project to meet the target needs with better precision.

So, what actually goes into design research? Besides doing interviews, which represent the most common method in the field, design researchers also do observations and workshops to gain insights into people's real experiences and derive findings that haven't been verbalized yet. Other practices include prototyping ideas and conducting user tests with pictures, models, and other paper prototypes, which shed revealing light on people's reactions.

The design-research mindset

Design research isn't just a set of methods, of course. It also entails a different mindset. The concepts guiding design have long put the emphasis on individual people; "human-centered" design and "user-centered" are common parlance. Now, however, that focus on people is starting to give way to a focus on "life." The "life" component of life-centered design covers all the connotations of the word, including the concept of life ("existence," or seimei in Japanese), day-to-day living (seikatsu in Japanese), and the temporal span from birth to death (jinsei in Japanese). When you adopt that life-centered perspective, your viewpoint grows to cover not just the individual people using your products but also the social and environmental implications that your products have.

Another key part of the design-research mindset is seeing products as systems, not just individual items. From that broader standpoint, you can go past simply handing your target value off to consumers and, instead, think about creating structures that enable customers to maximize the value themselves. That’s the concept of products as systems. I also think you'll see a growing emphasis on "design with people," or bringing a more diverse mix of people onto projects to create new value, along with a focus on "people to people"—paying more attention to the people supporting the business and providing them with meaningful experiences.

Let me give you a few examples of how we've put that mindset into practice.
In design research for contact centers and call centers, for instance, we did research on approaches to finding the issues facing our customers, examined the services they could provide, and developed our findings into solid proposals. We've also done work for a pharmaceutical company, turning our research into suggestions on how the client could streamline its paperwork for clinical-trial procedures and other components of its substantial documentation responsibilities. For a luxury fashion brand, meanwhile, we used observations of employees dealing with customers in the store to lay the groundwork for customer-service improvements.

From the screen of the online lecture.

Implementing and
utilizing design research

At the end of the presentation, Kiura fielded questions from Creative Center designers. The discussion led to insights from a variety of angles, touching on how to use design research in their day-to-day design work, put the methods into practice, and maximize the benefits.

First up was a comparison of the contexts surrounding design research in Japan and abroad. One difference lies in the investments that companies put into idea creativity; the idea of spending money on idea development has stronger roots in Europe and the United States than it does in Japan, and companies overseas actively recruit design researchers as a result. Kiura also shared his insights on how academic background and work skills play into the design-research arena. Project teams at big tech companies in the U.S. often bring in people from fields outside the design realm, including cognitive psychology and cultural anthropology. Researchers are also gaining expertise in advance research through their involvement in fields like architecture, where the long service lives of buildings make it hard to do quick improvements on the fly and thus require nuanced, informed foresight.

According to Kiura, the growing scope and roles of design are both creating clearer specializations between practical design and research and also leading teams to better equip themselves for the research so crucial to their efforts.

The Q&A session brought a key point home: that design research depends on engaging with people as individuals. While marketing research revolves around statistical data and objectivity, design research is all about researchers' own, subjective insights. It comes down to how you approach questions and answers. In marketing-research interviews, researchers come in with predetermined hypotheses and use the interviews to check their answers against the respondents’. Design research, on the other hand, uses interview questions to find answers and then identify the issues that need solving.

Kiura's presentation dovetailed with a growing level of interest in design research at the Creative Center, which is home to its own design-research project: DESIGN VISION.*2 Despite the unique challenges that come with doing presentations online, the response from the attendees was tremendous. Momentum is already building for follow-up sessions and deeper dives into more practical, hands-on training.

*2 A design research project at Sony

(March 12, 2021 [online])