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Is Design Thinking a Silver Bullet for Consumer Research?

According to the Interactive Design Foundation, “design thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.”

Design thinking puts a lot of stock in empathising with consumers on a human level. This demands the designer/researcher put aside their ego and preconceptions and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand their behaviours when using a product or service, their feelings surrounding that use and their ultimate usage goals.

Any underlying assumptions about usage processes, goals and associated feelings must be challenged in order to truly understand the problem/s from a consumer standpoint and find a range of different ways of solving those problems. Solution options are then proposed to the user, tested and feedback gathered. Thus, a big part of design thinking is ‘thinking outside the box’, i.e. outside the designer/researcher box.

A big part of design thinking is ‘thinking outside the box’ or more specifically. outside the designer box — The designer must put aside their ego and preconceptions and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes

Design Thinking Vs The Agile Method

In terms of its focus on iteration design thinking sounds a lot like the agile method (which I’ve written about in previous blogs surrounding survey design and software development) doesn’t it? The two approaches do in fact have an awful lot in common. In both cases, feedback is gathered, changes are made, and feedback is gathered on the results of those changes and so on.

However, whilst the agile method (especially when applied to software development) is ongoing throughout a products lifecycle, what we’re often asking users to comment on with design thinking is prototypes and concepts. As such, we also tend to be iterating towards a fairly finite project end date and project/service launch, rather than ongoing releases of features.

Design Thinking and Consumer Research

A large part of design thinking is research by its very nature in that it involves understanding the user’s problems, attitudes and beliefs. The ideas underpinning design thinking are more aligned with a deeper understanding of a smaller number of users and therefore more qualitative or ethnographic than quantitative.

They involve watching what users actually do, interviewing them to establish why they behave in this way, designing a solution and then going through the same process over again with users interacting with the new solution. Brainstorming is also a powerful tool in design thinking.

It’s not that surveys (quant) are incompatible with a design thinking approach to consumer research, but the likelihood is they would be shorter, more frequent, and less arduous to answer surveys. In a design thinking approach surveys would be focused on collecting feedback on products/services which have been redesigned based on feedback from a previous qual iteration.

It’s not that surveys are incompatible with a design thinking approach to consumer research. but the likelihood is they would be shorter. more frequent. and less arduous to answer surveys

That said, when looking at a consumer research project as a whole, a large-scale quant phase can be very useful in support of the iterative design thinking phase. Such surveys can assist with design phase user targeting for example, or be used to test possible solutions with a much wider user-base post the design thinking phase.

How to Implement a Design Thinking Approach

So, design thinking sounds like a great approach for our post-rational modern age doesn’t it, with the importance placed on the equity of the consumer and the dissolution of researcher and designer ego? There are just a few things that make it a bit tricky however. If you are looking to go down this path do factor in the following:

1. Empathy is hard! The ability to empathise without imposing your own cultural values and preconceived notions on a consumer is just not easy to do. It is particularly difficult when the consumer group being researched is of a different age/gender/ethnicity/social class/nationality to that of the research team. This is, of course, a challenge present across the entire market research spectrum but the level of objective empathy required to operate a design thinking approach effectively is on quite another plain to that of most methods.

2. Business timescales don’t always fall in line with an iterative approach like that of design thinking. It takes time to get to know users, to design prototype solutions based on their needs, to review these with them and produce something better. If you’re timed out before this process ends, will the business be any further forward?

3. Design thinking needs to be ‘baked-in’ at the start of the innovation process. Often companies will commission research having already developed a product or service. Design thinking requires that the researcher is there right from the very beginning helping to shape the product or service.

4. This means that the process isn’t quick. By definition, you’re not looking at a quick survey or a couple of focus groups and leaving at that.

5. Design thinking requires that researchers act as the champion of the consumer and that their findings are enmeshed with the product or service evolution, rather than forming easy to pass over recommendations at the end of a project.

In Conclusion

Implementing a design thinking approach isn’t necessarily easy, nor is it right for every research project. However, where there is a need and a willingness to integrate users, researchers and designers at all stages of product or service development, a business can have more confidence in the success of the endeavour if they do so.

The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.

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