Research Says: the Right Way to Hook Readers

Upali Nanda, PhD, Associate AIA, EDAC, ACHE

As a researcher it is heartening to see how often we see the word research in the media today. "Research says"... has become the hook to getting people's attention, and then earning their trust. And most would say that it's a worthy hook- better than "I think" or "in my opinion", or even, occasionally, "in my experience". Yet, I wonder if there is a certain honesty in just saying "in my opinion". In showing oneself to be a human instrument who has assimilated the available knowledge and transformed it to something actionable. I worry more that "research says" can become a smokescreen, a justification tool, not the medium for improving and assimilating the available knowledge that makes us better at what we do. And that worry stems from the fact that we hear more and more about research as a means to garner proof, and convince masses, not as an ethic to make us better.

Wiki cites the Frascati Manual with this definition "Research comprises "creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications".

Fundamentally, research is about knowledge, the creation and curation of knowledge. In the world of design it could be increasing our stock of knowledge on the urban fabric, climate and site conditions, building materials and systems, or user experience and operations. The increase in this stock of knowledge must result in devising new applications in design. But all too often research initiatives are stand alone initiatives that expand the body of knowledge but struggle in the "applicability"- perhaps because during design, path -breaking research on a single element is difficult to put in the context of all the other elements that a design team must simultaneously consider . For a building to come together each aspect (from structures to interior finishes to product selection) works in concert with intricate interdependencies. Not so in research. Good, robust research is often extremely narrow in focus, allowing a deep and precise investigation. The results of that investigation reveal an outcome- but our challenge as researchers in "practice" is to assess how effectiveness on one outcome impacts all other interconnected outcomes. There is a distance between a research finding and design application. And that can only be bridged if research findings are put to test on a project, and run through the ringer of complex decision making and continuous testing and retesting of solutions.

Example- "research says" exposure to daylight reduces stress- but what impact does daylight have on thermal gain? Without sustainability research and user experience research coming together we cannot know an answer to this question. The complexity of architecture cannot afford a siloed approach, regardless of how stellar each silo may be.

Besides, here's the thing- research does not "say" anything. We make decisions based on the research that reveals certain relationships or demonstrates a certain effectiveness (or lack thereof). So when we use "research says", we need to have an equal awareness of what research does not say... and use that as the basis of new investigations. Because if we use “research says” to justify, rather than proactively, creatively, and continuously, apply, we do both design and research a disservice.