If you've taken a standardized test you may recall analogy questions. For example, if the problem posed was air:airplane :: _______:ship, a reasonable solution for the blank would be water (apparently this notation is called the Aristotelian format).
I started thinking about analogies after reading Carl Alviani's recent Coroflot posting - Questioning the Cult of the Sketch. The article challenges the common view that strong sketching, or drawing skills, are critical for a designer, especially in the context of judging whether to hire a designer. Alviani quotes a Creative Director at Nike: "A designer who can't sketch is like a journalist who can't write!". Alviani's point is that sketching, which has traditionally been table stakes in the design industry, is now just one of many design-related skills - and arguably not one of the most important ones, compared to other forms of communication, management, etc. A great designer need not be a great sketcher.
This got me thinking about the analogous skill to sketching in the design research field. That is, what skill is considered so fundamental to conducting research that it would not only be possessed, but well-honed in experienced design researchers? I made an initial, incomplete list:
- research planning
- observational aptitude
- note taking proficiency
- interviewing skills
- data capture competency (photo, video, audio)
- data synthesis and analysis
To narrow this down, I focused on those skills that had characteristics which were most analogous to sketching: early in the process, raw/unrefined, driven by personal interpretation and feel. This led me to settle on a consolidated grouping of observing, interviewing and note-taking, that collectively we can call field research skills.
Now, turning back to Question the Cult of Sketch, can a great design researcher lack great field research skills? I would think not - there is a critical distinction from sketching here - field research skills are intrinsically broader and multi-disciplinary relative to sketching. One might be a weaker note-taker, for instance, but still excel with effective interview questions (and a good memory).
But perhaps Alviani and I are both asking the wrong questions because we are inwardly focused. A more fitting question of the modern designer is - can you conduct research to inform your designing, and of the modern researcher - can you design to communicate your research results? Otherwise expressed as research:designer :: design:researcher*.
*See Christopher Fahey's Design Research is a Design Process for an interesting perspective on these issues.