Design Research is a critical part of our offering at Essential. As part of our Innovation Strategy team’s growth, Caroline Turnbull Doran recently joined Essential as a design researcher after completing a dual MBA/MA in Design Leadership from Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. People and their stories have always motivated her, and like any good researcher, Caroline has multifaceted interests that fuel her curiosity and inform the perspective she brings to our work.

We recently sat down with Caroline to learn more about what exactly a design researcher does at Essential as well as to hear more about her story and the path that brought her to our team.

1.  Off the bat, what is an important thing we should know about you?

“I’ve always been inquisitive, and I particularly love “What If…?” questions. From a young age – I can picture myself in second grade – I was eager to ask people questions and hear their stories. I guess some things don’t change.”

2.  What does a design researcher do?

“If I were to explain my job to that second grade self, I might simply tell her that I listen to people tell their stories. She’d be thrilled, right?

That description isn’t wrong. But for people with attention spans greater than the average second grader, I’ll describe my role a little differently. In the most basic terms, Design Researchers learn about the lives of customers for our clients and what they value.  

Researchers explore customers’ experiences with products and services – their low points and unmet needs along with the parts of their day that delight them. We share these observations and insights back with clients and design teams in order to develop products and services that improve the lives of those we’re designing for. Being a researcher requires being part anthropologist, part strategist, and part journalist.”  

3.  We like that idea that you get to wear a few different hats. Can you break down what each one does?

“Depending on the scope and nature of project, I may wear one of these hats more than another, but typically it’s a mix of all three.

The Anthropologist Hat: We’ll use a mix of contextual inquiry – translation: watching and asking questions as people operate as usual in their environments – surveys, co-creation exercises, interviews, and workshops with this hat on. The goal of the anthropologist is to understand the situational and cultural worlds that the end user exists in. Anthropologists look for patterns and make sense of many different voices and perspectives. Good researchers interpret information objectively and with empathy.

The Strategist Hat: We may do more desk research and traditional market research with this hat on. As strategists here we learn as much as we can about the industry in question. Outfitted with insights from fieldwork or interviews, we may make connections between industries in order to inspire ideas for the products or services we’re working on. We keep it in mind how to balance concept feasibility, desirability, and viability given the business environment.

The Journalist Hat: When we wear this hat, we’re figuring out how to best capture stories and share them with clients and design teams. We might use conceptual models, personas, journey maps, or other ways of grouping and describing customer behaviors and motivations to highlight design requirements and make opportunities understandable. The design researcher as a journalist asks: What mix of artifacts will tell the story best? Is that story an honest representation? We like to incorporate video, audio clips, pictures, and direct quotes to make the story real to clients.

The beauty of wearing many hats, too, is that research often exists across an engagement with a client. We’re looking for opportunities to learn about customers and end users throughout the process, from beginning to end.”

4. Why is Design Research such an important part of our work at Essential?

“Design Research uncovers new product or service opportunities for clients.  All organizations, big or small, should be looking out for what’s next and constantly observing and listening to their customers, stakeholders, and employees. Research helps clients hear early signals.

Research is also a powerful way to involve a wide range of stakeholders in the development process. Engaging employees in workshops or end customers in contextual inquiry reinforces to them how valuable their perspectives are. Plus it’s generative. It’s a wonderful way to source ideas and concepts from individuals outside an organization.”

5. What is your favorite thing about the role?

“I have a job that challenges both sides of my brain. I went to art school and business school at the same time because I see value in using both right- and left-brain approaches. Like good friends, they support each other. They also sometimes fight! I get a good balance of both everyday.”

6. Tell us more about your dual MBA/MA in Design Leadership. Can you explain what that program is?

“It was essentially an innovation strategy degree. Along with refining my business skillset at Johns Hopkins with an MBA, I learned how use the design process to help companies and organizations innovate at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

One of the best things about the program was that it gave us wide client exposure. One semester I worked with the US Census Bureau exploring the immigrant experience of data collection for the upcoming 2020 Census. In another course, a small team and I worked with a public transportation advocacy group in Baltimore exploring brand-building activities to grow their reach. We used design research principles throughout; it was a ribbon that ran through every engagement. Naturally, it was one of the parts I liked best.

The balance of pursuing a traditional degree alongside a much more interdisciplinary one suited me well. I loved that I could apply what I was learning about human-centered design and innovation strategy across industries and sectors - all the while considering financial implications and business factors.”

7.  For the last half of your program you were working with Herman Miller. What were you doing there?

“Broadly speaking, I researched cultural and social trends for the workplace furnishings team. For example, consider what’s happening in robotics, demographic changes and increasing lifespans, and AR/VR capabilities, just as a start – they all impact the way we work or the way we will work. As a thought leader in workplace and furnishings, the company invested significant energy into developing perspectives on these changes. The team I supported developed these company perspectives and was experimenting on how best to circulate them in the organization.  

Like Essential, Herman Miller’s heart and soul is in design. I loved the creative environment there and getting to be a part of Herman Miller’s legacy of research and human-centered solutions. I learned a great deal in that position and had a chance to work with brilliant people.”

8.  I know you enjoy learning. What are you reading right now?  

“I’m in the middle of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. It’s a broad survey on the history of humankind. He tours through the history of Homo sapiens, the development of language, social networks, and capitalism. It got a lot of buzz a few years ago but I’m now just reading it. So far so good!”

9.  How else do you get inspiration for your work?

“There are lots of great resources out there for field research and workshop inspiration. These are some of the books on my desk that I reference all the time:

  • Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal
  • The Ethnographic Interview by James Spradley
  • Practical Empathy by Indi Young
  • The Designing for Growth Field Book by Jeanne Liedtka, Tim Ogilvie and Rachel Brozenske

For human behavior inspiration, two books stick out to me. Both of these are older, but are total gems and infinitely interesting:

  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
  • Manwatching by Desmond Morris

For Podcasts, some of my favorites are 99% Invisible, Planet Money, and On Being. For design research-specific podcasts, there are some old recordings you can find in the Mixed Methods podcast and Dollars to Donuts series. We are so lucky to live in a time of podcasts. I can’t get enough.”

10.  And as our final question: What is something you are most proud of professionally?

“Right after college, I spent 6 weeks on the seat of a touring bike co-leading 10 high school students on a cross-country bike trip. We weathered a lot: humid and hilly rides of the Ozarks, a tornado in Kansas, the dry Rockies, sleeping outside. I’m proud of what we accomplished – the awesome physical challenge, yes, but more how everyone overcame the mental challenges and made it to the Pacific Ocean. I will always be so proud of that group of kids.”