Research Through Design – in what way it facilitates innovation?

12 August 2019
Hanna Sitarz
Research Through Design – in what way it facilitates innovation?

What tools to use if you are interested in unprecedented solutions? What to do if our ambition or downright assigned task is to design macro-, no micro-innovations?

User-Centered Design (UCD) approach is a philosophy and methodology of creating products and services, which is grounded in the involvement of a future user in the design process. According to the UCD the right design process (models, mock-ups, prototypes) is preceded by interviews and workshops which give the foundation for recommendations, and as a result, defined and designed functionalities of a product. Starting from the mentioned earlier individual interviews in the first phase of the user needs research, thought usability tests in later phases, the involvement of users serves to recognize the needs and boundaries as well as reaching the goals of your audience.

Today User-Centered Design is a standard. Companies, regardless of industry, are looking for and engaging the teams of qualified researchers and designers. In this way, they want to change the way their company is functioning to evolve in the spirit of UCD.

In what cases the UCD approach works the best?

  • Product already exists, but it ceased to be competitive (regarding usability and attractiveness).
  • We are creating a new product, which will base significantly on what is currently on the market.

Today, thanks to UCD, we create plenty of solutions, which answer people’s real needs.

What we create, results from a knowledge collected about the user during research. It occurs even within strict regulations dictated by the business model, which rigorously describes the time for creating a product, as well as market goals, which need to be achieved by the product.

From designing, thought research, to innovation

How to take advantage of a situation, when the time to create the product is not strictly assigned, and a goal is bigger than the next, “new” version of an existing product? What kind of tools and solutions can we use to discover new horizons and create unprecedented solutions? What if our ambition, or the assigned task, is designing macro-, not micro- innovations?

The answer might be a Research Through Design (RTD) methodology. It relies on including design exercises in the research process. This approach brings research to an almost scientific level and allows its meaning to exceeds the traditional needs analysis. The main difference between the RTD method and traditional research approach UCD is using design as a tool to gain a better quality of knowledge about the users.

A source of knowledge, necessary to create innovation, is a stimulating material created by a designer - a prototype or an artifact. Usually, it bears a striking resemblance to a ready, already existing product. The example here might be an object with an unusual combination of elements. This new configuration provokes a discussion, enabling the user to engage in interactions that previously have not been possible. Those are new experiences, which can happen and that we can observe during the research phase.

That is why the research in this situation have scientific value - their goal is to generate knowledge, which won’t be possible to achieve without designed artifacts. Therefore, those are strictly scientific findings, that can become a major aspect which enables to create innovative products.

Technologies, which forget about the real needs of users

We usually assume that our everyday experiences need to be improved by the applications, tools, and programs, which are ought to visualize, save you time or even take over some responsibilities from us. We favor digital media. Advanced technologies - digital and interactive - seem smarter than inventions of the past. However, in reality, favoring a specific medium is restricting during the design process. By selecting the way to reach a goal in advance, we reject the other ways, which might be more effective.

In effect, there are plenty of advanced, but unnecessary products, which use the newest technology for the sole sake of using it. They steal our precious attention and time, engaging in trivialities, they pretend, and in this way, they replace the relations with other people. Currently, the real consequence of using technology is an addiction (from internet and tech devices) and alienation, which decreases the quality of everyday life. More and more consumers are aware of this, that is why it is crucial to create attractive products which answer the users' needs and ease their life. RTD appears to be a methodology, which enables creating mindful innovations.

Pioneering RTD methodology

In March this year, in Delft, Niederlande, was a fourth edition of a conference Research Through Design (RTD 2019), organized by the pioneering universities developing this method: TU Delft, TU Eindhoven, and University of Twente.

The examples, presented during a conference, showed that RTD methodology works in all design disciplines. The concepts using new technology were dealing with Well Being and Health Care but also Fashion and Jewelry Design. The exhibition of prototypes was based on thinking, trials, and asking questions, and not about showing ready-made products.

One of the main thoughts of this experimental, three-day congress occurred to be the newest technologies, which can serve to intensify the human experiences, help relating with surrounding people and the world. In other words, it allows being here and now.

What particularly drew attention was a handmade, digital jewelry prototype, which looked like elements of a natural environment. This jewelry, using the newest technology, can accompany a person, for example, during hiking. While walking, it records the image and sounds in the microfilm hidden in a rock. You can see a recording though the small screen which forces you to look inside. It facilities a very personal, almost intimate interaction, in contrast to what the popular technology offers. The memories closed inside the rock can become a wonderful gift to a close one. Another example was a sound recorder in a decorated piece of wood.

“Smelling interface for bike” - one of the prototypes presented during RTD 2019.

Experiencing a future and services, which provoke to think

Another project which I found incredibly inspiring was one connecting technology and fashion in the context of wearing clothes. This research, similar to many others, was supported by Philips, which shows what the technology giants invest in. The project was a visualization of phenomenons, which can accompany the act of wearing clothes, like creating a glare and specific aura surrounding the person dressed in this way. Exhibited prototype and visualization (a set of woman clothes with a specific pattern and overlaid video effects) simulated a person's visual influence on their surroundings and the clothes' reaction to the wearer's mood.

Amongst other projects in the area of Well-Being and Health Care, the especially interesting was a set of “remembering” device for people with dementia, interactive lamps with an application for mood registering for people on the autism spectrum, as well as provocative project - Planned Death Company, a set of information about dementia with charts and planners needed to plan your own death. Planned Death Company rises a lot of very different reactions- presented materials, well designed and thought through (a project of a visual identity of a “company”), was simulating an imagination and provoke to take a stand on the topic of planning your death.

Innovations without risky investments

The RTD Methodology can help discover completely new solutions and introduce innovations in all design disciplines. Moreover, it can change the character of our everyday use of technology and the negative consequences of it. Thanks to prototyping, and not making ready products, it is possible to explore potential innovations without great and precarious investments.

RTD created in the scientific environment has one major goal - improvement of human experiences. Currently, it is difficult to predict, what application will it find, when it becomes popular and commonly used in commercial projects. Would it become a part of design standards like User-Centered Design? A lot depends on the teams, which can experiment and use RTD in projects on the mass scale.

RTD 2019 - conference website:

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