Researchers in academia are very good at synthesizing journal articles and peer reviewed writing. Researchers like to investigate topics of interest, whether in the hard or social sciences, discover key findings, and then from these key findings make their own inferences, leading to their own primary research in a particular field or sub-field.
Oftentimes, compiling secondary research, or the research we get second hand from others who have already conducted their own out in the field, is a little bit easier to understand and think through. It’s only when researchers start doing their own primary research that problems might accrue. This is the nature of trial and error. You try to investigate something, but you are lacking enough information. Or, you try to come up with a plan or experiment to study something with a desired outcome, but you miss the target completely.
Local and Human Centered Design
Taking a design approach to your research experiment and implementation is all about understanding the motivations and behaviors of the subjects you are looking to study, instead of just exhausting different inputs to see if there is a desired change that will result. For example, there was a great study done in 2015 about a public school system that struggled with finding enough substitute teachers for their school. It seemed that everytime they needed to find a sub, they had to scramble and this resulted in poor education outcomes for the students.
Design thinking in this example was centered upon a staff member not simply trying to find new subs to fill positions, but to understand the motivations of substitute teachers themselves. The study, turns out, found that subs, after several interviews, feel undervalued for their work and disrespected by school systems. Getting more subs to feel empowered was the solution that ended up working for this school district.
In the above case, the clear benefit or subject that was worth looking at was not simply how to hire more substitute teachers, and make the logistics of subs coming to the school easier—although that would have been a research experiment in its own way. Instead, this experimentation involved the substitute teachers themselves. Design thinking like this can help researchers ask the right questions at the right time in their research experiments for maximum impact.
In turn, using design centered approaches, like the one above that involved a human-centered approach, can build resilience in communities, whether it’s a school system or a community that is affected by air pollution. Resilient communities are able to bounce back from shocks to their community because systems of operations work so well that when there is a problem, the system knows how to recover quickly.
From an Environmental Standpoint
In other research areas, such as Earth Sciences and those that deal with the climate, and health, design thinking can also be incorporated into research practices. For example, lets think about how a renewable energy solution can be incorporated into a community that has relied on gas for the past century:
- Data—start with gathering lots of data about the resources in the community already, the people in the community, their demographics, industries they work in, etc.
- Insights—Is there anything interesting or of value about the community or a resource that could be used in a new fashion (i.e. a renewable energy source)?
- Implementation—how can community members utilize this resource in a fashion that works for them, within their means
- Scaling—how can the renewable energy project scale safely and efficiently, in an equitable manner.
It turns out that design thinking can complement a number of different research interests and specializations. What stays the same is understanding the right questions to ask to be able to solve the right problem.