the systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions.
All organizations invariably conduct some type of research to validate assumptions and establish a basis for future actions. Typically, research activities are seen as the marketing department’s domain - which hires research agencies to help find answers. Larger companies might have research specialists or even research departments, yet agency help is sought from time to time. In the majority of cases, people from organizations don’t talk directly to their customers.
When organizations start to explore design thinking, they encounter design research - and attempt to make sense of it based on previously familiar reference points. Since the term ‘design research’ contains the word ‘research’, it is easy to think we understand its purpose based on the traditional standpoint. This opens the door to comparison and criticism. While critique is good, it is also important to understand the dissimilar nature of design research. We feel that design research should be understood in terms of its purpose.
Here we share our three key learnings on how the nature of design research is different from traditional research:
1. Design research is not about the truth, it’s about what is relevant
2. Design research is explorative and iterative
3. Goal of design research is to inspire innovation, validation happens through prototypes and MVPs
1. Design research is not about truth, it’s about what is relevant
In service of the business brief
Depending on the nature of a project, design research can start either with an extremely wide and open scope or with a limited set of design hypothesis and research questions, or something in between. Either way, design research activities work in the service of the business brief. This means that the nature of these activities is not objective; their purpose and function is to always help the company solve business problems. This is accomplished by testing and validating hypothesis related to the brief, providing insights that help understand problems and the human behaviors related to them, scoping the right problems to solve, and often even questioning the brief itself. The starting point of any analyses is always relevance to the brief – and not a thorough understanding of the phenomena.
This focus is important to have, since time and money available are scarce. For instance during qualitative research when we try to understand complex issues, it’s easy to be carried away and drift towards findings that seem interesting on their own, but do not necessarily help to verify the right problem nor design a solution.
The key skill a design researcher must possess is something we’ve coined as three-way empathy. First, you need the openness and curiosity necessary to observe and listen to different kinds of customers, so as to make them reveal their unarticulated needs. Second, to understand the business problem, fundamentals of the business, the complexity of the organization and stakeholders involved you require empathy for the CEO. This creates a lens of relevance when you examine your findings. And since the value of working in multidisciplinary teams comes from different people looking at same insight, each from their own perspective, you also need empathy to understand your colleagues.
The Paradox of embracing complexity, and simplifying
Design research needs to embrace complexity and simplify key findings into what really matters, at the same time. On a theoretical level, this feels like such a great paradox that we often observe participants in our lectures and workshops feel uneasy about it. Certainly, it is very difficult to just share tools that can help achieve this. We have seen that the best way to truly nurture this aspect of design research is to work in small, multidisciplinary teams. Varying viewpoints and perspectives help bring out sharper insights, shift focus along the way and still stay relevant - but can go into themes deep enough to evoke the most exciting opportunities.
An entrepreneurial mindset is very helpful while conducting design research. If there is personal ownership taken towards the business problem and brief, you will be hungry for opportunities and inspiration that helps create an automatic relevance filter to view findings. However, it should not encourage jumping too fast on the first solutions to come by nor to get stuck on or fixate on these, no matter how much dopamine the thrill of discovery releases in your brain. The real value of design research comes from deep qualitative understanding that is actionable to the business problem. If all the valuable insights we seek were to lie on the surface, anyone could see and act upon them. It is not the obvious discussions that come easily that matter, but finding key points that actually drive change in behaviour.
Connecting the dots and being intuitive
One of our favorite tools to keep in mind while conducting design research is to ask constantly (in the context of the business brief) : “if I could change only one thing, what would it be?”. This question helps to reflect on findings or decide whether to go back into the field and uncover additional insights. It is an indicator of our own level of comfort – “how much do I believe in this insight?” “Is this a cue to follow and explore deeper?” The design process is still heavily dependent on gut feeling and intuition. No matter how systematic the process, it cannot negate the value of being able to instinctively connect the dots. Sometimes things just can’t be explained in numbers or graphs, and small observations do lead us towards the right solutions. Design research should create room to embrace intuitiveness, as long as we stay relevant to brief.
Two-way ‘relevance filter’ – behavior change and business brief
Relevance goes two ways – relevance to the user and relevance to the business. Think of the business brief as creating wall to bounce your findings off. The second relevance filter comes from looking at potential for change in behaviors (in users) and evaluating this critically.
Eventually, all design research links to behavioral change. This is why we go out and immerse ourselves into the daily lives of people - to understand their behaviors, real motives, needs and aspirations – the triggers that move them, and rewards that leave them satisfied. This helps us understand and find the factors with potential to change behaviors while serving the interest of our business brief. Designing for behavioral change is not easy. People are lazy when it comes to changing their behavior. To truly change habits, we need to understand the right triggers and the mechanisms of value creation. It is very easy to be excited by superficial insights that appear inspiring and offer ‘obvious’ solutions, and thus critical assessment is a must.
There is no real shortcut here. While uncovering insights you need to dive deeper, to look for what you didn’t know was able to solve the user’s problem. To uncover a solution that can also answer to business feasibility, which is what the CEOs look for. As a researcher you should always ask yourself – “what is relevant for the business brief?” and “what is relevant for changing behavior?” The solution lies at their confluence.