A Not-So-Secret Recipe for Thoughtful Design Research

Three principles for shifting power in design research engagements and co-design sessions.

Illustrations by Mavis Cao

I distinctly remember the first time I engaged in something called design research. It was 2013, and I had just started my career at a creative agency in Hong Kong. We were working on an internal strategy and culture change project, arranging back-to-back interviews with staff members with varying levels of experience, seniority, and tenure. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The term “research” conjured up memories of desk research, and focus groups with one-way mirrors, evoking a sense of isolation and a disconnect from participants.

Turns out, design research was none of those things.

I observed my colleagues lead interviews with care and compassion. They listened deeply and followed up with thoughtful questions, creating the conditions for people to feel safe to speak openly and vulnerably about their experiences working for the company. By the end of the project, employees with over a decade of experience expressed how the interviews marked the first time they felt truly heard. These moments underscored just how significant thoughtful engagement could have on individuals and a collective organization. A decade later, I still relish this feeling.

Salt Acid Heat Fat

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the inevitable challenge that arises in all research engagements: power dynamics. Whether in design or other applications, the interplay of power between researcher and participant is unavoidable regardless of intention. Since my introduction to design research ten years ago, I’ve seen the design community engage more and more in critical conversations about the process and this tension. It has encouraged me to investigate and reflect on my own process over the years and ultimately, compelled me to create a set of guiding principles to articulate the very language needed to conduct research with care and intentionality.

When crafting these principles, my primary objective was to ensure their relevance across a range of project types. With varying timelines, scopes, budgets, and partner capacities, it’s not practical to pin down a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Instead, I see these guidelines as a design researcher’s version of Samin Nosrat’s culinary philosophy: salt, fat, acid, and heat – core tenets of cooking that concoct a delicious dish.

Make it relational

Build and nurture relationships with the people we involve in our work and shift away from one-off transactional engagements. Show individuals how their input is (or isn’t) being incorporated, and give them opportunities to weigh in and provide critique as they get more comfortable over time.

Tips for relational engagement:

Treat collaborators as experts; create space for trust building and get to know the strengths, skills and experiences of co-designers.

Invite research participants to final share outs, or share the final deliverables with them.

Make it reciprocal

Treat research activities like work! Honor the time and energy of participants by shifting away from extractive experiences and centering mutual advantage. Participants should walk away feeling they have gained something tangible as opposed to volunteering their time for little in return.

Tips for reciprocal engagement:

Provide equitable compensation. Period.

Attribute people’s contributions to the final deliverable in the form of credit or co-authorship.

Make it communal

Build community and trust amongst your participants. This is especially important on projects where groups will discuss personal or challenging topics. Oftentimes we work on topics that carry social stigmas and taboos. Here, there is an opportunity for us as researchers to have much-needed conversations in an effort to normalize these topics.

Tips for communal engagement:

Develop shared community agreements for how to show up together in a group setting.

Foster emotional safety by intentionally curating the group dynamic. Sometimes, this means asking partners or clients to abstain from certain activities.

Consider hiring a therapist and providing outlets for processing when working on challenging, personal topics.

In Practice

One of the first projects that inspired me to articulate these principles involved 30 co-designers with different lived experiences of the New Jersey child welfare system. Over six months of weekly meetings, professional compensation, on-site therapy, and co-authorship, we built trust and empowered them to shape the future of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families.

Similarly, in a 20-week project, we applied these principles when working with a network of doulas who served as community researchers to expand maternal wellness in New Jersey.

Involving a core group of doulas from start to finish, fostering community building, fair compensation, and attributing their contributions, we successfully shifted power dynamics and captured their vision with more success than past initiatives.

When I cook, there are times I indulge in creating a lavish and elaborate meal, and there are other times I embrace simplicity. Nevertheless, when I apply salt, fat, acid, and heat, the outcome is invariably nourishing and delicious. The same phenomena applies when it comes to design research work. By making it relational, reciprocal, and communal, even at varying scales, our collaborators show up as experts and our outcomes carry more power. It is my hope that these principles serve as inspiration to challenge the inevitable power dynamics and an invitation to be creative within the constraints of any design project.