Some actions – such as grabbing onto something for balance – are universal and instinctive. Others, such as warming hands on a hot mug or stroking velvet draw on experiences so deeply embodied that they are almost unconscious. Still more, such as hanging a jacket to claim a chair, have become spontaneous through habit or social learning. Observing such everyday interactions reveals subtle details about how we relate to the designed and natural world. This is key information and inspiration for design, and a good starting point for any creative initiative.
Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO

User research encompasses a set of activities and interactions with people intended to inspire the process of design. Using an understanding of people to inform design decisions is a foundation of human-centred design. User research methods draw heavily from the tradition of cultural anthropology, in particular ethnography. Like academicians in anthropology, the design researcher attempts first and foremost to make sense of the world (behaviours, attitudes, belief systems, etc.) and then distill this understanding into meaning — generalised insights that reinforce or challenge our understanding of a design challenge and inspire solutions.

During this workshop, the distinction between ‘sense making’ and ‘meaning making’ was a recurring theme. At its core, user research is about helping designers draw inferences about what’s important: the essential elements of the user experience that can drive and inspire solution development. User research is a chance to invite into the design process a set of views and perspectives that designers may have failed to anticipate by considering only their own experiences or values.

User research doesn’t force design decisions or reveal a straightforward path from problem to solution. Rather, user research is a capability that allows designers to add deep context to their understanding of a design challenge and to translate what’s most meaningful into more tangible expression.

Finally, user research is a practice that refreshes the designer’s mind. It’s a humble and collaborative activity that helps designers stay more finely tuned to their surroundings and the beliefs and ideas of others. User researchers are good listeners and synthesisers who open themselves to knowledge and inspiration from unexpected sources.

In this workshop, students acquired basic skills in user research and gained an understanding of the role that research plays in the context of interaction design. In collaboration with external stakeholders, students gained first-hand experience with field research techniques, team-based synthesis, co-creation and insight generation.