In the business world, I later learned, "the research" is quite a different phenomenon. As my interview so nicely illustrated, "the research" is not debatable. Apparently it's capable of predicting people's reactions to decisions that haven't even been made yet. In fact, "the research," seems to be capable of making decisions all on its own.
This simplistic view of research pervades our culture, the business world, and increasingly the world of design. According to this view, "research" is synonymous with science. And since science provides us with hard truths in the physical world, "the research" should do so in the business world. But let the buyer beware of such thinking. The real world is a complex system inhabited by autonomous individuals. It isn't so simple or knowable, which is exactly why design can be so valuable.
The Austrian economist F.A. Hayek called this imitation of science "scientism." Scientism is to science what Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" is to truth. It feels like science, so it carries a certain weight. But upon closer examination, scientism turns out to be a charade. It is often a well-intentioned, earnest charade, but a charade nonetheless. Scientism exploits the extreme reverence accorded to science in our culture, as well as a popular misunderstanding of what actually constitutes science. True science has certainly earned our respect, but as Hayek said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1974, "what looks superficially like the most scientific procedure is often the most unscientific."
So why am I discussing scientism in a blog about design? Because as design has become more accepted in the mainstream business world, it has adopted many of the conventions of business, including scientism. But designers embrace scientism at their own peril. This way of thinking may help designers gain acceptance in the short term, but it ultimately cheapens the most important dimension of their work: the human dimension, including things like judgment, taste, and creativity.
Anyone who has worked in a creative field—or has reflected on his or her own creativity—recognizes that being creative is necessarily chaotic, sometimes arbitrary, and often unpredictable. Why do ideas come easily one day and not the next? Where does inspiration come from? These are mysterious questions. They are also the kinds of questions that would make a paying customer nervous. As designers venture out of their studios and into company boardrooms, they find themselves being asked questions like "How do we know this process will work?" or "How do we know which design is best?" or "How will people react to this?". Clients are right to ask these questions. But designers also have a responsibility to give honest answers—answers that can be difficult to deliver and difficult to hear. The allure of "research" is that it provides a way out of considering hard truths.