July 2021
How Design Research Can Save Us from Irrelevance
<a href="https://sundbergferar.com/author/lauren-burger/" target="_self">Lauren Burger</a>
Lauren Burger

Senior Design Strategist

The foundation of great innovation is based on solving a problem people face or delivering on a need they have – whether they are conscious of that need or not – in a novel and meaningful way.

On the surface, that statement is pretty straightforward and probably makes a lot of sense, so it’s surprising that an estimated 95% of new product innovations launched each year fail[1], and one of the key factors in those failures is that many innovations don’t solve real problems. To avoid heading down this path of irrelevant innovation, we must develop a deep understanding of peoples’ behaviors, motivations, expectations, and aspirations to ultimately deliver a product, service, or experience that will thrive through fulfilling a need that can’t be met elsewhere.

So how do we gain this knowledge? How do we truly understand the people we are innovating for to deliver something of consequence? The answer comes through learning from the people themselves – by either directly asking them questions and having conversations with them, indirectly observing their actions and behaviors, or utilizing creative techniques to uncover their latent needs. This learning – also known as Design Research – is essential to the innovation process. Gaining this knowledge can not only give us the groundwork necessary to deliver a design that creates a positive impact in people’s lives, but it can also give us the insights decision makers will need to feel confident moving forward with and investing in a design.

How Design Research Can Save Us from Irrelevance

What is design research… and what isn’t it?

What are we really talking about when we say, “design research”? Let’s first be clear about what we’re not talking about. We’re not referring to researching the theory of design itself. And although it’s useful to have research on an industry’s market – including size, location, and demographics – this is also not the type of research we’re talking about.

The objective in design research has a different lens – we need to go beyond just understanding the market, to understanding the perspective of a product’s or service’s stakeholders. Design research is about empathizing with and understanding the behaviors, functional needs, and emotional desires of people who will be impacted by the design.

 

Why is design research important

You may find yourself (or decision-makers at your company) asking, “is design research really critical to innovation?” It’s true that designers and engineers are trained with the skills to give their designs many useful traits – they can make them balanced, proportional, technologically feasible, affordable to manufacture, and so on. But how do we give a design more meaningful traits – the traits that make it stand out on a shelf, deliver a memorable experience, and make it something people can’t live without? How do we make it beautiful, desirable, relevant, intuitive, ideal, and worth the investment of time and money? How do we even know what these words mean, let alone know if the design we’re creating embodies these traits? These questions are much more difficult to answer… and the answer cannot come from within.

There is a well-known phrase when it comes to design – “you are not your user.” This gets at a very real problem that can impact the design process – biases which individuals doing the designing can bring to the process. When designers believe that other people – namely their stakeholders – will think and behave in the same way they do, it can lead down a dangerous path. This false consensus bias can lead to the development of designs that the creators may love, but ultimately won’t have much value to the end users or other design stakeholders.

What do we mean by “stakeholders”?

Just as important as “you are not your user” is that we “can’t be everything to everyone”. As we repeat often at Sundberg-Ferar, “Stop trying to be all things to all people. Start by being something to someone.” As we think about who we are designing for, whose behaviors and needs we want to understand, we must home in on a target group of stakeholders to research – the people who are actually going to use or interact with the product, service, or experience we’re designing, often defined by their demographics (age, income, occupation, etc.) and psychographics (interests, attitudes, beliefs, etc.).

These stakeholders consist of end users, who might be current customers we are looking to retain, or a new market we are looking to attract. Beyond end users, it’s also important to understand the broader group of a design’s stakeholders – those who are impacted by the product or service, even if they may not be the actual person using the design. This includes people like installers, servicers, salespeople, retail stockers, or those who might indirectly interact with end users. Including all these groups in our research increases the likelihood of a design’s success by optimizing it for all the people it impacts.
Unfortunately, the reality of a design’s many stakeholders is often missed or underemphasized in the design process. We help our clients uncover and define these unique multi-users and then ensure that we’re designing to respond to their needs.

To appreciate why it’s so important to understand these various groups of stakeholders, we can look to a few business cases that forewent this step and suffered the consequences. Take for example the streaming app, Quibi, which shut down just 7 months after its launch date in April 2020. Many have said the service – which featured short-form original content – failed because it didn’t understand the needs of its end users. First, the service launched with content that was only compatible on mobile devices, not TVs; in a time of quarantine, when the population was confined to their homes and television-watching skyrocketed, the decision was seen as questionable from the get-go. This approach also made other mobile video apps (YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, etc.) the service’s main competitors; however, these apps all offer their content for free, compared to the $5/month Quibi charged for ad-supported steaming. Quibi also failed to understand people’s desire for entertainment to play a role in their social sharing, and didn’t allow users to share screenshots or clips from its shows on social media channels.[2], [3]

Or consider the infamous Google Glass which failed to look outside the end users of its design. Beyond the lack of attention that seemingly went into Glass aesthetics, privacy concerns were a key factor in keeping the technology from taking off. And it wasn’t privacy concerns of the end users; instead it was the privacy concerns of people who might be inadvertently – or not so inadvertently – recorded by the users of Glass. By failing to take into account these stakeholders who interacted with wearers of the product, and that many of them wouldn’t want to be recorded without their knowledge or consent, a public backlash erupted that eventually led to the retirement of Glass.[4], [5]

These failures underscore how critical it is to gain knowledge about our design stakeholders. But it’s also important to note that this cannot be a one-time effort.  Innovators must be vigilant about keeping knowledge relevant and up to date. As the world around us constantly changes, our stakeholders’ wants and needs also continue to evolve. We must always be looking to the future to anticipate how these needs are changing and continue to reassess if our stakeholders’ perspective (or even who is considered a “stakeholder”) is shifting.

When designers believe that other people – namely their stakeholders – will think and behave in the same way they do, it can lead down a dangerous path. This false consensus bias can lead to the development of designs that the creators may love, but ultimately won’t have much value to the end users or other design stakeholders.

How design research can be applied

To be most effective, design research is a practice that should be integrated consistently throughout the innovation process, as opposed to just bookending the process. This ensures the voice of stakeholders is infused into the design, leading to more iterative development of ideas that truly embody people’s wants and needs. Design research can help to inspire, refine, and evaluate designs, in several ways:

Design Inspiration
Research helps ensure we’re solving the right problem and provides fuel to ideate solutions that will actually deliver against stakeholder needs.


  • Primary research – such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, and observational research – allows us to explore and learn about stakeholder wants and needs, and begin to understand what their ideal experiences would look like.
    We are regularly carrying out each of these activities for our clients, both at our design studio using our dedicated design research facility, and “in the wild” in the natural environments where users are interacting with the design.
  • Secondary research helps us understand macro trends in the world shaping future needs and behaviors of stakeholders, trends impacting specific industries, the competitive space (and whitespace), and breakthrough innovation from other industries that can provide inspiration. These are all research activities we do with our clients, especially in Genesis™ innovation strategy projects.

Design Refinement

As designs are ideated and developed, iterative feedback from stakeholders can provide insight on how to continuously infuse improvements into our work.

  • Primary research – such as focus groups that utilize low-fidelity prototypes or one-on-one usability testing – can help us quickly test how well an approach solves a stakeholder problem and identify opportunities to improve through an iterative design.
  • Co-creation sessions bring stakeholders into live workshops to help refine and build upon design ideas.

For this step in the process, it’s ideal to have on-site access to a prototyping shop (for example, our studio is comprised of our research facility, a collaborative design studio, as well as a full prototyping shop). This enriches the refinement activity because it allows us to apply the feedback from research participants’ in real-time by mocking-up or tweaking prototypes and then reintroducing them for further feedback.

Design Evaluation Once design concepts are developed, we can test prototypes of these concepts with users to provide direction on bringing the most meaningful design to market.

  • Primary research – such as quantitative concept testing surveys – provides more statistical reassurance about which design direction will best meet stakeholder needs.

In a world where everyone is hungry for the next great idea, design research – when used in a purposeful way, at purposeful times throughout the design process – can help move us from an ordinary design that may or may not have relevance in the market, to an innovative experience that will make people’s lives better and more beautiful and fuel growth for your business.

These concepts can help ensure that you’re approaching design research the correct way, however each design research challenge is different and requires a tailored set of research tools which takes practice and experience to discern. Each step of the process is also full of complex factors and ambiguity that we know can be daunting to navigate.

If you’re looking for guidance on the best design research approach, and an experienced team to help you make it happen and equip you with evidence-based-confidence to move forward with your design, give us a shout! We’d love to talk. hello@sundbergferar.com

Author

Lauren Burger

Senior Design Strategist

With a background emphasizing the importance of combining both human desirability with engineering feasibility in design, Lauren has a deep passion for understanding the needs of people and how they translate to a business growth strategy. She spent her early career growing and running her own small business, including managing new product innovation, instituting a multi-channel retail approach, and developing all marketing and PR communications. From there, she spent the next several years expanding her consumer research and business strategy skills at Gongos, Inc., where she specialized in bringing a human-centric approach to knowledge synthesis, trends, and innovation projects.

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