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How to Apply Design Thinking Principles to Market Research

As market researchers, the questions we have are frequently complex and multi-faceted, and our research goals ever-shifting against the current of fast-moving markets and evolving client and user needs. How can we approach these kind of research questions in a way that allows for this intangibility, and even embraces it? Applying design thinking principles to market research problems enables researchers to do just this.

Why Design Thinking?

Design thinking is about solving problems like those we tackle daily in market research in a human-centred way, but how do we apply those principles to our research processes effectively?

Wicked problems are unique, the solutions often irreversible and untestable, and generally part of a larger system where there may be competing viewpoints. Applying design thinking principles to wicked market research problems moves the researcher from a position of chasing a moving target into one where they can capitalise on the insights gained from a more iterative process.

The design thinking process approaches problems in a logical and methodical way, whilst focussing on the human element. IDEO, often credited with inventing the term describe that “design thinking uses creative activities to foster collaboration and solve problems in human-centred ways.” Design thinking is in many ways no more complicated then ‘thinking like a designer’, but understanding what that means, and crucially applying it to a market research scenario requires some thought about how to incorporate the tools we use as researchers into each stage of the process.

Applying Design Thinking


In the face of competing deadlines, the latter might seem a big ask, but with the use of online research communities, immersion into consumer discussions becomes both possible and convenient. Asking users to share their experience through an online diary or to document it with photos and videos is another means of creating a path for the researcher to walk in the user’s shoes.


Researchers should expect that in addition to applying the understanding gained from taking an empathetic approach to the users, a cyclical process may follow of defining, checking, and re-defining the problem, which they should become comfortable with as an integral part of the methodology.


Researchers need to look at the questions they ask, in order to encourage novel ways of thinking and elicit diverse ideas, for example taking a “How might we…” approach as well as encouraging participants to explore extremes (“what would be the worst possible solution?”) and alternate realities (“What might this look like if X company did it?”).



Insight professionals using design thinking will recognise the value it brings through results including increased research agility, deeper insights, and better solutions.

Market researchers using design thinking will recognise the test mode as another opportunity for increasing empathy with users and narrowing the definition of the problem, through better understanding of how the proposed solution changes their user experience (for better or worse); “Testing may reveal that, not only did you get the solution wrong, but you also framed the problem incorrectly”, (

Designing Solutions for Better Insights

This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.

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