What makes a researcher a good researcher? What does a career in Design Research look like and how can we structure career development inside and outside organisations? What does the work of doing research actually entails? These are some of the questions Dave Hora had been working on for a long time when he partnered with Tomomi Sasaki and embarked on an international project that would culminate with the creation of the Research Skills Framework, a structured way of looking at research as a profession which has been helping the community to deepen our understanding about what we do and, ultimately, how we can better plan and scale our work. In this interview they tell us about their professional background, how they met and what the framework really is.
Let’s start with a little bit of your professional background. What do you do now and how did you get here?
DH: I am still a researcher, after moving into the field about 10 years ago. I started the research function at 5 companies in the San Francisco area (1 development consultancy, 4 startups), spent a year consulting independently in Denver, Colorado, and now I manage our highly efficient team of two researchers at ResearchGate in Berlin, Germany. Over time, my role has expanded beyond the practice of research itself to three broader areas: democratizing the research program within an organization, research as a practical entrypoint to understand and design for organizational culture, and moving research out of the design sphere into higher order product strategy.
TS: I’m a designer and partner at AQ, an independent design consultancy based in Tokyo, where I’m from, and Paris, where I’ve been based since 2014. I’m usually juggling a few client assignments for big enterprises, bringing design/research/facilitation skills to challenges like customer experience, digital transformation and organizational design. I also lead the research practice at AQ where we help non-Japanese companies better understand our domestic market. I started out as a software engineer 10+ years ago, switched to project management for web development projects, discovered IA and UX, and became a designer along the way.
You are both key members of the Research Ops community. How did you get involved?
DH: I found the community in a roundabout way—somebody told me an article I’d written about research career progression was being discussed. I wanted to join the conversation, and the community seemed to be the best place for practical and meaningful research discussion. When this project started, it was just a number of us thrown into a new slack channel, “skills-framework,” and we didn’t really understand what we were in for. The involvement in this project led to a seat on the board of the community.
TS: I joined the Slack group in early March 2018, attracted to the idea of operational excellence as key to scaling the value of research within an organization. Research operations tends to be regarded primarily as a challenge for product companies but it’s important for agency-side practitioners, too. If we want our work to have more impact within the client organization, that means helping them with increased maturity, better briefs, and the organizational readiness to act on insights – not to mention developing stronger operational practices ourselves. I became invested in the community with the What is Research Ops initiative – I was intent on bringing this conversation to Japan, where there wasn’t really a research community at the time. And I joined the board with Dave in early 2019, when the Research Skills Framework project started to take shape.
Tell us about the Research Skills Framework. What is it?
DH: First and foremost, it’s a highly-structured hypothesis about what the work of “doing research” actually looks like. The insights report breaks this hypothesis down further, into a systems-view on how researchers develop their skills over time. And closest to my heart, skills are written as “patterns” in the style of Christopher Alexander’s pattern language, which means they can be used as building blocks for healthy and successful research efforts. That’s the core of the framework, and it’s also paired with a small and growing set of tools that help make it more actionable and straightforward.
TS: It’s also the result of a community project and countless conversations between practitioners around the world about what it means to do the work of research. And it’s a big body of work that we’ve released under Creative Commons licenses and open to future contributions, in the hopes that our peers will adapt, extend and re-use it in their advancement of building research capabilities to better collect and act on customer insights.
What was the research question that ignited this project?
DH: What does it really mean to grow and develop as a researcher? For me, it started well before this project, my first attempt to answer that question was formulated in an article on medium called The researcher’s journey. This project started with a list of 50 or so discrete “units of skill”[that ultimately morphed into the patterns] that didn’t have a clear narrative around how they fit together. I sent this picture to a chat in the ResearchOps community and Emma Boulton threw me into a new channel (“skills-framework”) with a bunch of other folks, and that’s how it all started…
What was the process of creating it like?
DH: Do you know that classic squiggle, the horrifying mess that is a design project that suddenly turns into clarity and light right before the end? It kind of worked like that. Along the way I had the good fortune to work closely with Tomomi, and among many other things she helped turn a small project into a series of workshops that were a great boost for researcher-communities in cities all over the world, and also helped us collect the data that informed our role-level insights. The modified Wardley mapping and pattern language style surfaced very late in the game.
Why is the Research Skills Framework relevant now?
DH: Research used to live more squarely within design, but an increased pressure on the design profession to deliver designs—regardless of their grounding in empirical insight—opened the door to research as a specialty in modern organizations. It’s unclear where research will ultimately sit, but the scale and scope of products and services we deliver into the world make it more important than ever to root our work in the appropriate understanding of behavior and context. It’s table stakes, it’s not about “accelerating innovation” or any other corporate buzzword, it’s about making the outcomes of our work humane and accessible.
In the Framework, you redefine well-known ‘soft skills’ as ‘human skills’. Why is that?
TS: To give these skills more weight within the spectrum of skills to be developed with intent. It’s a trickier territory to define and less sophisticated than the craft skills content in the Framework but I think it does its job in bringing a more distinctive perspective to how practitioners consider “how we make work work”.
Who can benefit from using the tools you created to accompany the Research Skills Framework, and how can they learn how to use it?
TS: The Framework is for anyone involved in the work of research, and the tools are meant for those who need a bit of inspiration to get started. One of the most interesting things since releasing the Framework has been the sheer variety of use cases that people have found for the Framework. We hope to keep adding tools as people experiment. Please get in touch if you build something that can be shared!
Whenever we talk about research to non-researchers, we invariably get asked ‘what makes a researcher a good researcher? Does the Framework answer that question?
TS: Yes. But a useful answer to this question, which I think is “how do I become a good researcher?” in disguise, is contextual to your experience and environment so you need to meet it halfway by reflecting, assessing and experimenting! The insights section is a good place to get your bearings as to what peers with similar levels of experience have reported.
What are the main challenges and the counterpart main skills senior researchers face and need to have?
DH: The main challenges that senior folks face I would break down into three areas at top of mind. One is organizational evangelism—selling the practice and the process so its scope of influence increases, getting the time and resources necessary to actually carry out higher order work and see higher order impact. Two is the squeeze—all the types of research that have been done before, basic evaluative studies, concept testing in the design process, straightforward discovery… as a researcher advances and consolidates or masters these skills, the organizations need for the work doesn’t go away. So how does a researcher effectively reduce the time they spend on this constant and growing demand for the things they’ve already proven successful, and make their own time to learn, grow, and develop into new realms? Three is uncertainty of the path forward—except at larger organizations with an advanced design practice or a mature research practice, the fate of “senior plus” researchers is uncharted ground. This is the one we don’t have an answer for in the skills framework, it’s really an open question we’ve uncovered throughout the workshops.
And what about those in the beginning of their careers, what are the skills they need to develop first to get on to a good start?
DH: The easy answer is “the foundational stuff”—no researcher or designer can stand firmly on their work if they can’t ensure the right participants are in the room, the interview will run smoothly, the research objectives are met, and data is captured appropriately. Table stakes! But the really important skill is to learn to situate research in the larger process of product or service delivery, and begin to understand the complex web of dependencies and reinforcing relationships that ultimately dictate where good research will have productive impact, and where it won’t.
Would you say it is possible to adapt the Research Skills Framework to other disciplines? Why is that?
TS: Yes, the “skeleton” is universal and can be used to break down the skills of any discipline… or so we believe. A few non-research folks who have started playing with that idea but obviously it’s a big investment. I would love to stumble upon a body of work one day and see our Framework in its DNA.