So what’s research? Research can be defined simply as the search for knowledge. It is a systematic investigation into anything in order to establish facts, answer a question and reach new conclusions.
While scientific research provides information to explain the natural world around us, that is ‘what exists’, design research is concerned with ‘what could be’ in the future. Design research tries to break the mindset and paradigms that have shaped the past. It challenges, provokes and disrupts the status quo. It does this by using visual imagery – sketches, maps, photos, storyboards, models and prototypes to explain concepts, stimulate discussion and collaboration, inspire new directions and engage emotions. Design research draws on knowledge that is transdisciplinary and contextual, relying on a range of methodologies in order to derive insights in topic areas as diverse as users, markets, materials, processes, history, culture, nature and so on. Design research is often applied throughout the entire development process as an extension of a designer’s natural inquisitiveness.
As designers, we are always striving to place people at the heart of our designs. To achieve this, we naturally tend to focus our research activity on trying to understand the unmet needs, wants, desires and dreams of the people we are designing for. We want to know what makes them tick. What motivates them to do the things they do? How and why do they do the things they do? What challenges do they face in their daily lives? For designers, it is design research that provides the context for any solution – the who, why, where when and what. By doing design research you are laying the foundations for a successful outcome and delighted users.
Here are 5 outcomes in particular that design research can deliver to your business. Each outcome is discussed with the following mini case study as an example. A car manufacturing company wants to design a new car specifically aimed at mothers with young children as they believe this may be a new market opportunity. No-one in the project team has young kids themselves.
1. Problem validation
Often designers are given a problem to solve in the form of a brief. Designers use research to interrogate the problem to determine whether it is in fact the real problem or merely a symptom of a larger and/or different problem. To create innovative and engaging experiences, products and services, you need ensure that you are solving the right problem for the right people at the right time. Validating the problem and articulating it in such a way as to be directive but not prescriptive will set up your project for success.
For our car company, they need to understand if mothers as a user group have needs that are not being met by current cars in the market. If they do, what are those needs? And if a new car could meet those needs, would they consider buying that vehicle at what price point? By observing mothers using a variety of cars and speaking with them about their experiences the team discovers several unmet needs e.g. they need extra boot space to fit the pram, nappy bag and the weekly grocery shopping. They often need places to put children’s drink bottles, baby wipes and other commonly used items within easy reach without them rolling around the car. Still need to be able to park in normal spaces in busy shopping centres.
2. Understanding your customer through empathy
Design research is great for developing a deep understanding of your customer or end user, their needs, wants, desires, rituals, painpoints, work arounds and idiosyncrasies. Using techniques such as observation, interviewing, shadowing and physically putting yourself in your users’ shoes, it is possible to truly immerse yourself in their world and empathise with the person you are designing for. This strips away personal biases and assumptions (which are the result of your own personal experiences and values) and replaces them with a greater appreciation for what the user is experiencing, their actual needs and wants. This type of ethnographic research is especially important when you are designing for people very different from your own experiences e.g. hospital patient, the elderly, children, aid workers in remote areas.
For our car company, they need to understand what a mother is going through as she juggles schedules, temper tantrums, unwieldy prams, shopping bags and so on. By ‘walking in her shoes’, observing her and talking to her openly and honestly without agenda the team discovers that trying to open the car boot in a busy shopping centre carpark when you are holding a toddler’s hand in one hand and bags of shopping in the other is very challenging. They also discover that trying to buckle kids into their car seats requires a gymnast’s flexibility when the car door can only open 2 feet because of the car parked right next door.
3. Reveal deep customer insights
A critical part of design research is analysing and synthesising the information collected, looking for patterns and trends, and telling stories about your customer with the aim of distilling insights into why your customer does the things they do and how their experience could be improved. Opportunities for insights often lie at the margins of potential user groups and the junctions between pieces of information. For example, in the mismatch between how a customer says they do something and what they actually do when you observe them completing the activity. Recognising that what may appear to be a somewhat strange action or work around is their way of coping with a world that is at times confusing, complex and contradictory. Design research helps you to identify patterns and trends which may ultimately lead to deep customer insights that provide opportunities for true innovation. Such insights can only occur with a deep understanding of your customer, their experience and their real needs.
For our car company, they observed that mother’s often got their car keys from their handbags long before they arrived at the car, holding them awkwardly together with shopping bags and children’s hands. Many mothers when interviewed omitted this step from their accounts of what they do. The insight was that mother’s need hands-free access to open the boot.
4. Test assumptions
Research weeds out fact from opinion, heresay and assumption. By speaking with potential users and observing their actions you see their approach, hear their thoughts and reasons firsthand, rather than second or thirdhand. Design research can reveal knowledge gaps and potential opportunities e.g. new markets, new technology, new materials, new processes for further investigation.
5. Creating fertile ground for innovation
Perhaps the most useful outcome of design research is that it sets the stage for creative problem solving and innovation. Innovation is not a lightbulb moment of genius. It requires deep understanding and the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. Only by having immersed yourself in the design research can you hope to uncover meaningful insights (connections) that are the foundation for innovation and creative problem solving. Ideas do not form in a vacuum of information but from immersion in and exposure to a wide variety of relevant information.
For our car designers, their problem has become focused around designing a car with improved access to the boot and rear seats. They may look into alternative hands-free ways to open the car boot such as voice activation once the key is within a certain range. Or perhaps they will investigate other ways to configure the side doors so that they slide instead of hinge open or move upwards to enable easier access to children in the back seat.
So as you start your new projects this year full of optimism and excitement, don’t be tempted to skip the design research and dive headlong into solving “the problem”. While design can (and frequently does) proceed without the design research, without it, you will struggle to know what to design for whom and why. The result is likely to be mediocre, rather than delightful and engaging for your customer. So set yourself up for success and use design research.
Once you have done your design research and uncovered your deep customer insights, what do you do with them? In our next blog we look at taking your research insights and using them to develop strategies – for the business and the business model, for completing a project or developing a process and for approaching the design of the solution itself.
Image credit: Participants role playing in a focus group on the topic of ‘medical care’. "Research methods for product design" by Milton and Rodgers (2013).