Design (Research) in the Wild: A Conversation with Brenda Laurel

Our August event featured an interview with Brenda Laurel - a pioneer in the interaction design discipline. She’s blazed trails as a game designer, writer, and teacher.

The discussion centered around generative research. Generative research, according to Laurel, requires informed intuition, going out to meet people where they’re at, and most importantly it requires us to recognize that we - the designer, product managers, developers - are not the user.


Our interviewer, Bram Wessel, asked Laurel to identify the key considerations that should be taken into account when working with people. Laurel outlined the following:

  1. Design for good

  2. Design for others

  3. Look for opportunity in new tech

  4. Don’t forget history

Design for Good. It’s easy to focus on what makes money while designing new tools and features. Laurel asserts it’s easy to default to a profit-driven mindset. Yet she encourages us to challenge this mindset. It is our job as designers to model good behavior, civility, and care. We should use our voices as designers to design things people need that better their lives.

Design for Others. Designing for others begins with rigorous self-examination so you can recognize your biases and make sure you leave them at the door. Laurel gave the example of designing games for young girls based on the social norms that girls are nice and want to be caretakers. Extrapolating from this, then girls’ fantasy dream worlds would involve nurturing things. But is that what girls really want from their fantasy worlds? Laurel suggests we let informed intuition guide us while recognizing our biases and then go out and talk with people, meeting them where they are at.

New Tech Opportunity. The emerging tech frontier invites us to design for good and others. Laurel uses VR as a key example. Game design is driving VR technology but other industries can benefit from VR’s potential. For example, virtual reality is being leveraged to help veterans work through PTSD. Designers who are asking, “What else can we do with VR and who else can we design for?” embody Laurel’s ethos of designing for good and others.

Don’t Forget History. When embarking on a new tech opportunity, consider the work and research that has been done in the past. Virtual Reality is a great example of this. Laurel notes that, “People doing point and teleport […] do not know that people have solved the locomotion problem in a variety of ways.” Don’t dismiss people that have worked in the field prior to you, constructively consider their work, and do your research before reinventing the wheel.

Putting Laurel’s ethos into action:

Generative Research Laurel pushed the audience to engage design research more deeply, beyond observing users interact with a prototype while expressing their impressions. Generative research should be the ground from which iterative design research stems. It starts with understanding a particular audience and discovering what their goals are to enhance their lives. Generative research answers the question of what to make rather than how to make it.

Interviewing Users How you engage users during generative research is key to figuring out what to make for them. The aim is to gather textured insight into users motivations and behaviors in order to identify their unmet needs and frustrations. Laurel explained you should not ask users what they think but rather get them to tell stories, to give examples from their own lives, and even to draw. To capture the dimensionality of a person, Laurel is also a big fan of dyad interviews - interviewing someone along with a friend or relative. She cautioned against asking superlatives because SUS scores tell us nothing about how a product will impact people’s lives.

Synthesizing the Data: The final step of generative research is synthesizing different data points to identify what will delight your users. Laurel gave the example of the hula hoop. The inventor observed how girls played and the emerging dance styles, including the popularity of hula dancing. He considered all these data points and made the hula hoop.  

Want to check out the full interview? Watch the video below or on YouTube!