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If you think evidence-based design and research-informed design are the same, you're not alone.

I decided to revisit this topic after reading an article about innovation by healthcare architect Sheila Cahnman that was posted on the Healthcare Design website a few weeks ago. In it, Sheila mentions that she considers evidence-based design to be research-informed design.

With all due respect to my smart and talented friend, the truth is that although the meaning and goals of evidence-based design and research-informed design are similar, their meaning is not the same. What confuses the matter even more is that design professionals and academics have different ideas on what is evidence and what is research.

I came to these conclusions a few years ago after reading an excellent article by Erin Peavey and Kiley Vander Wyst published in the HERD Journal in 2017.

All Evidence is Not Research

So, let's dig deeper into this. The Center for Health Design, which has led the evidence-based design movement in healthcare, defines evidence-based design as "the process of basing decisions about the built environment on credible research to achieve the best possible outcomes."

It's a good definition but the problem is (and maybe what causes confusion) that not all evidence is research.

In their article, Erin and Kiley explain that both evidence-based design and research-informed design use existing knowledge to inform design. But the difference is that research-informed design integrates new research as part of the design process. They wrote:

"When comparing evidence-based design and research-informed design, evidence-based design is a broad base of information types (evidence) that are narrowly applied (based), while the latter references a narrow slice of information (research) that is being broadly applied (informed) to create an end product of design."

A Better Definition of Evidence-based Design

Perhaps it's time for The Center for Health Design to revise its definition of evidence-based design.

Erin and Kiley came up with their own definition of evidence-based design as "the process of making decisions about the creation of an environmental design by critically and appropriately integrating the sum of available, credible evidence, practitioner design expertise, and client population needs, preferences, and resources, in the context of the project, in order to achieve project objectives."

It's kind of a mouthful, but does clarify things a bit -- and brings in some other important factors.

Their definition of research-informed design is "the process of applying credible research in integration with project-, client-, or population-specific empirical inquiry to inform the creation of environmental design and achieve project objectives."

HERD Journal founding co-editor Jaynelle Stichler explained the difference quite simply in a commentary published back in 2016.  Evidence-based design design, she wrote, "uses multiple forms of evidence to guide decision-making, whereas research-informed design is limited to using published research studies."

Want More?

There's so much more to digest in Erin and Kiley's article, including detailed definitions of evidence and research, a model case comparing the two processes, and critical attributes for evidence-based design and research-informed design. As they correctly point out, inconsistent use and misperception of terms are some of the main reasons people are confused about the two concepts.

If you aren't a HERD Journal subscriber, you can purchase individual copies of Erin and Kiley's article. And, you can access Jan's commentary on evidence-based design vs. research-informed design for free.

And check out one of my recent blog posts on evidence-based design: Why Many Use the Term Evidence-based Design Wrong.

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Sheila Cahnman

4 months ago

Sara: Thanks for acknowledging my article and making an effort to clarify the definition. I think we have come a long way from the original EBD notion that somehow credible research will, on its own, dictate specific design solutions since there is so little environmental research that is conclusive. Erin and Kiley's definition is good, but is so broad as to include all aspects of what good design should consider and accomplish. Personally I like the term "research informed design" and don't feel it needs to be limited to peer reviewed papers. Evidence implies a truth that I don't think exists.

Sara Marberry

4 months ago

Thanks for your comment, Sheila! Anyone else want to weigh in on this?

Erin Peavey

4 months ago

Sheila, I totally hear your position; however, that is a common misunderstanding of the word "evidence" - one that we get from all those court room dramas (or is that just me? 😉).
However, research clearly means " a systematic and scientific investigation that ultimately creates new knowledge." - in no way does it imply only published peer reviewed articles, but it does imply the systematic nature that involves reducing bias. This is not true with the term evidence.
Perhaps it is our understanding of the language that needs to change? I think of books like Brene Brown's Atlas of the Heart that elucidates and clarifies commonly misunderstood words - and I feel so grateful to her and her colleagues for enhancing conceptual clarity rather than making it a chase for the lowest common denominator. Words have meaning and power - I believe in using them precisely and always welcome the dialogue. 🙂

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Sara Marberry, EDAC, is a healthcare design knowledge expert, thought catalyst, and strategic marketing and business development consultant. The author/editor of three books, Sara writes and speaks frequently about industry trends and evidence-based design. She can be reached at sara@saramarberry.com.

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