Design Thinking in Research

Although it’s been around for decades, Design Thinking is enjoying a burst of heightened awareness as recent articles and books advocate the approach for everything from reaching corporate objectives, to developing advertising and value propositions, to achieving your personal New Year’s resolutions.

As a research firm we applaud this reawakening of the value of design thinking – its principles have always been a central part of thoughtful primary research designs.

Design thinking traces its origins back to the late sixties and early seventies, when scientists and engineers began talking about solution thinking. Commercial market research as we know it today developed around that same time. Whether the two disciplines influenced each other or are an example of convergent evolution, the results are the same – both design thinking and formal market research share a philosophical approach to understanding customers and markets.

The five broad step in design thinking are:

  • Empathize: Gain an understanding of the user, their world and their needs
  • Define: Define the real, underlying problem(s), not necessarily the one on the surface
  • Ideate: Generate a number of different solutions that could address the problem
  • Prototype: Create a prototype(s) of the solution(s) that you feel best addresses the problem
  • Test: Get reactions to the prototype(s).

Well designed research follows similar principles.  The catch phrases and analogies used in market research text books, manuals, presentations, etc. echo design thinking.

  • The problem the client comes to you with is not the problem
  • The customer doesn’t want a drill; they want a hole
  • Move from a product/engineering orientation to a market orientation
  • Taking the outside view
  • Provide the voice of the customer

Analogs of the broad components of design thinking are built into large multiphase studies, dynamic Agile research engagements, and are even present in standalone studies.

  • Multiphase research: These studies typically start with exploratory qualitative research to understand the customer’s day-to-day processes, needs, wants and challenges. The development team takes what they learn and develops/refines the solution for the market’s problems. The solution is then evaluated with more qualitative research or a quantitative survey. Further research is conducted as needed.
  • Agile research: Agile research is a phased approach that breaks the design into multiple, smaller research components within a compressed schedule.
  • Standalone study: In a single study, discussion guides and surveys include an exploration of how the customers do things today and the challenges they face before testing reactions to a solution, ad, etc.

Although design thinking principles appear obvious and easy to follow, it can be hard to do so in the real world when an internal team has developed a potential solution it feels strongly about. The development process and accompanying research can end up focused on the solution rather than the customer. They compare solution features and focus questions on what the customer thinks of the product. This can result in a false positive: In a side-by-side comparison the solution looks superior to competitors, and customers at the trade show seemed excited about it, but once introduced sales fall short of expectations.

Steve Jobs and Apple provide one of the best-known examples of design thinking – and research. It is a commonly believed myth that Apple never does any research. It does, it just focuses research on customer needs rather than their reactions to product ideas. Jobs believed successful products require a deep understanding the customer’s world.  We agree, and bringing this “outside in” perspective is the value research provides. Some of our clients are very internally focused or have a strong engineering background. At the beginning of the study they question if we have the technical background to fully understand their products. We tell them: We don’t have to; we’re there to help them understand their customers.

Regardless of the challenge—developing a new advertising campaign or improving your retirement planning—the principles used in research and design thinking can help you come to a solution that addresses root causes and drivers rather than surface appearances.