Good Design Research: How It Helps You Solve Real-World Problems

By Mark Ogilbee posted 07-13-2023 01:50 PM


This week on the ATC blog, Lynnaea Haggard, marketing manager with Sundberg-Ferar, continues a three-part series on how startups can leverage the power of human-centered design thinking to maximize go-to-market success. 

An AgeTech Collaborative™ (ATC) business service participant, Sundberg-Ferar is a multidisciplinary team of creative people that helps startups and large enterprises focus on the design and development of uniquely differentiated AgeTech-related products and experiences. Through their collaborative methodology that includes industrial design, research, engineering, innovation strategy and prototyping, they help companies design with purpose, innovate with emotional and functional intent, and deliver real, manufacturable solutions. 

The foundation of great innovation is based on solving a real 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.  

That might seem self-evident, yet an estimated 95% of new product innovations launched each year fail. One of the key factors for those failures is that many innovations don’t solve real-world problems. To avoid heading down this path of irrelevant innovation, entrepreneurs must develop a deep understanding of peoples’ behaviors, motivations, expectations and aspirations to ultimately deliver a product, service or experience that will thrive because it fulfills a real 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 in order to deliver something of consequence? The answer comes through learning from those people themselves either by directly asking them questions and having conversations with them, by indirectly observing their actions and behaviors, or by 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 that decision makers need to feel confident moving forward with and investing in a design. 


What Design Research Is… and What It Isn’t 

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 a particular industry’s market including its size, location, and demographics this is also not the type of research we’re talking about. 

Design research has a different focus: It goes beyond merely understanding the market, to understanding the perspective of the stakeholders in a given product or service. Design research is about empathizing with and understanding the behaviors, functional needs, and emotional desires of people who will be impacted by the product’s design. 


Why Design Research Is Important  

You (or decision-makers at your company) may ask, “Is design research really critical to innovation?” It’s true that designers and engineers are trained to give their designs many useful traits  they can make products that are balanced, proportional, technologically feasible, affordable to manufacture, and so on. But how do we give a design more meaningful traits the characteristics 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 know how various stakeholders even define those attributes given their unique perspectives on the product? These questions are much more difficult to answer… and the answers cannot come from within your organization 

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 that the designers themselves can bring to the process. When designers believe that other people that is, their stakeholders think and behave in the same way they do, their work can succumb to a false consensus bias that risks yielding designs that the creators may love, but that ultimately won’t have much value to the end users or other 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, the people 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 of these groups in our research increases the likelihood of a design’s success by optimizing it for all the people it impacts 

To appreciate why it’s so important to understand these various groups of stakeholders, we can look to numerous business cases that ignored this step and suffered the consequences. Take, for example, a streaming app that launched in 2020, and that shut down just seven months later. Critics have said the service which featured original, short-form video 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, that 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 monthly fee the new app charged for ad-supported steaming. This company also failed to understand how people like to share their entertainment choices on social media, and didn’t allow users to share screenshots or clips from its shows on social media channels. 

Such 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 we must continually reassess as our stakeholders’ perspectives (or even who is considered a stakeholder) shifts. 


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, design refinement and design evaluation.


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, which in turn helps us understand what their ideal experiences would look like.  

     •  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 innovations from other industries that can provide inspiration. This is done through web scans, AI tools, research publications, social listening, data visualization and synthesis, and other techniques. 

Design Refinement 

As designs are ideated and developed, iterative feedback from stakeholders can provide insight into 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 even better when some simple but contextually appropriate prototyping materials are available. In some cases, this may mean cardboard, tape and clothespins so that participants or team members can mock up a quick “3D sketch” of an idea that comes out in discussion, and build on it together. 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.

     •  Design evaluation research is usually invoked to provide that last verification needed to move forward with production and market launch. For example, it can be used to verify stakeholder preference between versions of the same already-successful concept, or it can also confirm that the final iteration of a design has met the stakeholder requirements you identified in previous research phases.  

In a world where everyone is hungry for the next great idea, design research when used in a purposeful way, at strategic moments 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 a positive difference in people’s lives and fuel growth for your business.  

These practices can help ensure that you’re approaching design research the correct way. However, each product development path and use case is unique and requires a tailored set of research tools that takes practice and experience to discern. Each step of the process is also full of complexities and ambiguity that can be daunting to navigate. If you’re looking for guidance on the best design research approach, or for an experienced team to help you make it happen and equip you with evidence-based confidence to move forward with your design, give Sundberg-Ferar a shout! We’d love to talk.  

You can find the first post in the series here.