Michael Chapman

Career Profile: Design Research

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Guest Blogger Holly Lopez Long is an analyst based in Colorado. She currently conducts qualitative research, program evaluation, and creates actionable reports that drive program improvement at Jeffco Public Schools.

Find her on LinkedIn.


For Michael Chapman, lead design researcher at IDEO, his training in anthropology isn’t just a nice, neat list of skills and credentials. It is a conduit for innovation. During his time outside of academia he has used his training to help organizations find inventive solutions to their biggest challenges. One such example is IDEO’s work with public libraries where they created a design thinking toolkit to help libraries reimagine their spaces to be more interactive experiences. I am constantly thinking about how I apply my own linguistic training to help create more tangible products. So, my question for Michael was: how do I translate my training as a linguist into something that can be used by others?

What I learned from Michael is: being able to turn research findings into solutions has a lot more do with perspective than a specific skill set.When you are doing research in an environment like IDEO the application of findings will always be central, which means the details are never going to be more important than the big picture. For that reason you will have to be able to quickly sift through the minutia in your data to find what is intrinsically interesting, actionable, and can change an outcome. To do this you have to be able to view your research like a designer not an academic. This means asking the following questions:

What is intrinsically interesting?

Design thinking is about always wanting to improve the daily lives of real people. That includes having a genuine curiosity about people’s lives and behavior and empathy for their experiences. So, finding what is intrinsically interesting is about looking at your findings and being able to identify what is going to be accessible and understood by an audience beyond your specific discipline. For a linguist, you may find a specific linguistic form and its function interesting, but if it’s something that is not relevant to a larger audience then it may not be the most important. A design perspective or design thinking involves caring about your participants more than pursuit of your specific discipline.

What is actionable?

After you’ve figured out what findings are most interesting, ask yourself whether or not your findings can be turned into something useful for your participants. A large part of that is being able to communicate your findings in a way that involves creation of a product or an experience. While in a traditional research setting, you may write a report that details your approach, participant group, findings, and a list of implications. In a design setting it is important to be able to frame your findings so that they are accessible to others. This begins with creating a bridge between insight and application for an audience of coders, engineers, and industrial designers. One way to re-frame those findings is by turning your insight statements into action statements.

Here are some examples:

Qualitative research findings  How might we…
Families think that our program is for “low performing students” and are unaware of the type of services we provide . How might we bring attention to the support services we provide for at-risk students?
Our organization experiences a lot of staff turnover, because of limited understanding on how employees develop and advance their careers in the organization. How might we create tools that help staff develop their careers?
Our target audience has limited knowledge about retirement, savings, and investment. How might we improve our target audience’s knowledge of retirement, savings, and investment opportunities?

(For more practice: “How might we”, create insight statements)

Can your research change an outcome?

Through your research findings you were able to define a real challenge/need that people are experiencing, but now you have to also figure out whether something can be feasibly done about that. In the examples above, the current outcomes are things like: low attendance/participation in your program, difficulty retaining staff, limited awareness and interest in a product/service being provided. None of these are optimal, but you’re hoping that the creation of a product or experience will improve the final outcome. If the current (non-optimal) outcome is something that a product/experience cannot address, then the research finding may not be valuable for the people you are creating for.

So what?

If you want to work in design research at IDEO (or any organization that is in the business of creating something that can be experienced) being a design thinker is more valuable than a list of specific skills (however useful those skills may be).

Here are a couple of Michael’s ideas on how to exercise those design-thinking muscles:

  1. Put together a design research portfolio: Take past and present work and re-frame it to ask “how can we…”
  2. Do your own research into a topic area that you are interested in: It doesn’t have to formal, but it should be human-centered. The final deliverable should highlight what is intrinsically interesting, actionable, and has the potential to change an outcome.

If you are a little stumped check out IDEO’s awesome (and free) toolkits Field Guide to Human Centered DesignHuman-centered Design Toolkit, or examples of their work for clients PNC Bank, and Sherman-Williams

Current Openings @ IDEO

Senior Design Researcher in Chicago

Design Researcher in New York


Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing, Naming,Tech, User Experience Research.