The Subspecies of Design Researcher

As a design research agency, STBY has worked with design researchers of many shapes and sizes. While the role of ‘design researcher’ becomes more common and recognised as a formal position in many different types of organisations, it’s worth reflecting on how we all work and the unique skills and attitudes needed in different settings.

The Bonds of the Design Research Tribe

Meeting a fellow design researcher is a special experience. Like with any other niche profession, there are some things that only other design researchers can understand. The absolute panic and build up of frustration and self-loathing when you realise you forgot to press ‘record’ on the audio recorder during the best interview ever, for example. We’ve all had trouble explaining what we do, had experience defending or advocating the value of a ‘small n’ study, and are constantly forgetting how exhausting a week of back-to-back interviews can be. There’s a lot we have in common and there’s nothing like that comforting air of knowingness that fills a room of design researchers. But there are also a few differences between us and our work environments that influence the type of complementary skills needed. Let’s explore some of them.

The Subspecies of Design Researcher

The most common and familiar distinction between design researchers are those that work on the ‘client side’, ‘agency side’ or as freelancers. There are some assumptions about how these roles differ, namely that agency researchers work on a more diverse array of projects with many clients, while client-side researchers remain loyal to projects devoted to just one product. The reality is a lot more nuanced.  

The agency dweller

Agency researchers typically work for an agency that specialises in design research or service design. These agencies range in size, but are usually hired by large organisations to conduct design research on a project basis or retainer basis. They often work quite closely with researchers, designers and product managers within the client organisations and juggle multiple projects at a time. Agency dwellers need to be good at digesting new information quickly and skilled at adapting to new organisational cultures and ways of working.

The freelancer

Just as the name implies, freelance researchers are hired by either agencies or client organisations to carry out design research for a set period of time. They are typically paid a day rate, and have a few years of experience. They tend to help out on a project-by-project basis and work full-time for a set period, or to fill a temporary skills gap. Like agency dwellers, they need to be nimble and adaptive. However, they need to be comfortable without the support of a team, that agency dwellers often have.  

The devoted unit

Larger organisations, especially in the tech services industries and increasingly in government, will have a team or multiple teams devoted just to design research. These teams will tend to have special names like “Insights Unit” or “User Research Team”. Depending on the nature of the product and service and size of the organisation, these teams conduct research for a wide range of products or specialise just on one. In some very large organisations, with many product teams, researchers will be embedded within specialist teams and carry out research just on that one product. They might however also be a part of a bigger team of researchers across the organisation.

These researchers need to be really good translators- scoping the needs of various stakeholders into appropriate research projects resulting in actionable results. They also need to be excellent team players and communicators, ensuring that their research resonates across the organisation and influences key design and business decisions.

The lone advocate

Some organisations have just caught wind of the value of design research and appoint or hire a person to assist with various design research needs within the organisation. Their main role at the beginning may be to educate various teams of the value of design research and how it is done, before perhaps conducting some pilot projects to showcase the value of design research and building further capacity.

Although they may have little experience to begin with, they see the opportunities and added value of design research in their organisation and become internal advocates. They may take courses to discover more about how to build their own skills and knowledge and the capacity of the wider organisation, or set-up pilot projects to get the ball rolling. They need resilience and determination to gain momentum and buy-in.

The multitaskers

Sometimes a person who does design research won’t have that as their sole title. In some startups for example, with few employees, many people will be expected to do design research in addition to their ‘formal’ role, be it design, strategy or business development. While they may not have the formal title of researcher, they still might conduct research part-time. The name says it all; multitaskers need to be good at juggling research with many other tasks and priorities.

Prototypical roles simplify a more complex reality

These subspecies are of course just a few general examples of the array of design research roles and contexts. The reality is probably a lot more diverse and fluid. Some organisations rely on a combination of internal units and researchers, working alongside an agency or freelancers for extra support, or simply external ideas and inspiration. Sometimes agencies will hire freelancers for help on particular projects when extra capacity is needed.

These snapshots also do not situate roles and contexts in time. In many organisations, design research roles and capacity are evolutionary. An organisation might start off with a lone advocate, which will later multiply and evolve into a devoted unit. Larger organisations, with many researchers might realise the value of pooling their research and capacity assets, organising researchers both vertically and horizontally. Ultimately though, while we all share design research as our core capability, each organisational environment demands a slightly different complementary skillset.