The goal of design research isn’t just about discovering something you didn’t know about your customer. It’s about discovering something your customers didn’t know either. You’re looking for new information to help you differentiate your product and offer something of value.
The last thing you want is that “no shit Sherlock” moment when you look at the research findings.
I was working with a large CPG (consumer package goods) company on a project. They had hired a large design firm to come up with new product ideas. Part of the upfront work was to do some design research.
The design team asked customers if they could observe them while they shopped in grocery stores, then go home with them and see what they did after shopping. Yes, people went for it. Quite a few actually.
When it came time to present their findings, the design team created these enormous posters with candid photos of customers in their homes. The work was gorgeous. It looked like something out of a National Geographic coffee table book about the American consumer. A lot of work went into the preparation of the material, and the client was very impressed.
The design team was fascinated with what they learned. For example, people would say they were health nuts, but in their homes you’d find a fridge full of crap and a carton of cigarettes. Some customers described themselves as fiscally savvy, then bought things they didn’t need, because they had a coupon. Others were conscientious consumers, while still buying mainstream brands and processed foods.
The only people enlightened by the research were the designers themselves. They were amazed these people exist. The song “Common People” by Pulp started playing in my head as we listened to them “share out” the findings. It was as if these people didn’t pay attention to trends and fads.
The design team learned of these customers; their knowledge of nutrition is woefully inadequate, they’re unsophisticated about marketing, and cheap trumps quality. Just to name a few. Anyone who shops in a major grocery store chain would know this sad truth.
The design team discovered customers were way different than they originally expected. But that wasn’t the point of this design research exercise, that’s just due diligence. The client already knew all the things the design team presented. Just because it was an insight to the design team didn’t make it one to the client. But it was presented as such.
The objective of this design research, like most, was to 1) discover what everyone didn’t already know, and 2) apply the findings to design recommendations. That is, where are the opportunities or problems?
Just because you learned something new, doesn’t make it an insight to everyone else.
The design team did come up with recommendations that reflected what they learned; the consumer isn’t very hip, healthy, or savvy. So, the solutions they recommended all seemed geared toward changing the image of the company.
In the end, I don’t fault the design firm for this. I believe their intentions were good. I think it’s the client that should have done a better job of holding the process more accountable. Instead, they were easily wowed by the presentation and aesthetics of it all. Since they were paying a lot for the work, they felt they might as well use it (see also, sunk cost fallacy).
The moral of the story
Design research is a collaboration, not a deliverable. Get actively involved with it and meet the customers yourself. If you hire a firm, actively engage with the process. Don’t just outsource it and hope for the best. It’s actually quite fun and very interesting. You won’t regret it.
If you’re a firm doing design research, learn what you can from the client about the customer and then compare it to what you learn on your own. Had the design team done that, they might have spent more time digging deeper.
If you’re the client, don’t buy into the myth that you’ll bias data collection. This isn’t the same kind of rigorous research they perform in academia. It’s meant to trigger new ideas, not learn for the sake of learning.
Here are some other ways to make the most of design research.
- Make sure you’re working with a team that can design the research, not just do design research. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things like creating a survey and interview a subject.
- Think about what you’re going do with the information. For example, how will findings translate into features and functionality of a product.
- Be willing to accept there is no there, there. Sometimes you won’t find anything new. It’s not a bad thing, it might mean you just need to fine tune what you were already doing.
- Do it yourself before hiring someone else. There are plenty of inexpensive ways to try before you buy.