Action Research, the spark igniting the Creative Fire


Research, I cannot be the only one who dreads hearing that word.

Do not get me wrong! I absolutely love getting immersed in my projects - looking for information that would help me define a solution to the problem at hand. But! Oh yeah, there is a but… Whenever I hear the word research it feels like an immense weight is set on top of my shoulders. Rightfully so because it is an enormous responsibility. Just saying that “I am working on a research project” sounds so professional – like there should be some exact formula to follow or maybe you have just mastered the matrix. It is true that there are certain methods one should follow but when it comes to design or creative industries, I would argue that this process can be more flexible. Would you expect someone to come up with an innovative solution to a new problem using a method that worked for a different project in the past? Maybe…

I appreciate the numerous design frameworks (the number keeps growing exponentially and I have lost track) but that is what they are – frameworks. Not a fool proof manual. Besides, most of these frameworks follow the same structure, the only thing that changes might be the number of steps or the wording. These days companies have a tendency to develop their own process methods which is usually just a copy of what everyone else in the design industry already knows (you might be familiar with the double diamond?) but it is made to look as a unique selling point for the company. “Look how great we are! We even have our own principles for design. Neatly presented in an infographic!” But jokes aside, I completely understand that the main reason behind this is to reassure the client. Let them know that we know what we are doing and how much value we are providing. Truth be told, the value of design is largely understated and any action that combats this issue is a godsent. Furthermore, the plethora of frameworks, methodologies and guidebooks make design/creativity seem like an impenetrable subject or an unachievable skill to outsiders. When in fact, anyone can be a designer/creative - that is at least what I believe in.

You can not buy creativity or design thinking in a book format – you can buy knowledge and to get the skills - you have to practise.

When it comes to creative thinking and imposter syndrome the Kelley brothers from IDEO have done a lot of work to tackle that.

One of my favourite quotes from this conversation:

Education is not the filling of a vessel, it is the lighting of a fire. - Socrates

So… What are we really talking about today?

We are taking a look at Action research, which was a completely new term for me. It can be broken down into 4 steps:

Plan – Act – Observe – Reflect

Action Research - an approach in which the action researcher and a client collaborate in the diagnosis of the problem and in the development of a solution based on the diagnosis

Again, there are many techniques that can aid in this process:

Metamorphic Thinking: Using comparisons to express ideas and solve problems

Affinity Diagrams: Organising ideas into common themes

Crawfords Slip Writing Method: Gathering ideas from many contributors

SCAMPER: Generating new products and services

Morphological process

Mindmapping (Tony Buzan)

Attribute Listing: Creating new products and services action research techniques list for future use Reframing matrix: Generating different perspectives

Random Input: Making creative leaps

Provocation: Carrying out thought experiments

Simplex: An integrated problem solving process

TRIZ: A powerful methodology for creative problem solving

The creative compass

The ideascape tool kit

Six thinking hats

Lotus blossom technique

Do it (Roger Olsen)

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming)

Breakthrough Thinking

LARC (Left and right creativity)

Random Input (De Bono)

From the perspective of a Product Designer it all seems very familiar. I know that I tend to use some of the techniques (listed above) unintentionally – like synonyms, antonyms, associations, analogies, or completely absurd provocations.

To test a few of the techniques we used this problem as our starting point:

I like to grow vegetables at home but I live in an apartment and don’t have a garden.

We first tackled this statement in a group Brainstorming session, which confirmed to be a handy tool when it comes to idea generation.

Next, we tried to tare apart our championed idea, a shared garden, with the Reversal technique. I was surprised how quickly we were able to transform the negative issues into solutions.

Lastly, we looked at Provocations. At this point we were all familiar with the problem and we felt like we have exhausted all of our creative juice therefore coming up with stupid-crazy statements was hard but once we got going it all snowballed into a genius upscale business idea.

The most important lesson from this activity is to work with your client. I popped a few questions at the start of the activity, but I felt like it was out of place because everyone else just kept going without stopping for a moment. Now I know that my first instinct was right and that a simple statement does not provide enough information to build your solution.

Taking the client on a journey with you should be the only way to get to a solution otherwise you are not solving their problem, you are solving a problem.