By Gema Cánovas
When it comes to design and innovation projects, there’s one phase that’s key to establishing foundational truths. It’s the same phase that helps ensure that the relevant needs and expectations of users are addressed.
We’re talking about design research.
Design research is crucial for a project’s success, yet many organizations downplay its importance due to a lack of understanding of its value. It is sometimes completely suppressed at the start of projects and left only as a validation tool once the product or service has already been designed or launched.
So, what’s behind this underestimation of such a vital phase? Read on to learn about the myths and legends plaguing the world of design research — and understand how to mitigate them.
1. “Research is expensive and time-consuming. We have no time!”
Naturally, as with any good work or activity, high-quality research requires time and investment—but it can be done in parallel with other phases, so there is no need to stop anything. However, research in the early stages of a project is extremely important to ensure teams begin conceptualizing designs with sufficient information and certainty to provide a logical, people-based, goal-driven approach. Upfront research saves considerable time, and therefore expense, in the later design and implementation phases.
The return on investment to carry out research may not be automatic, but the benefits can be clearly seen during and at the end of a project. Research helps us to make the right decisions before investing significant human and/or economic resources to create a detailed proposal and implement a product design. A good team of researchers who can choose appropriate methodologies and approaches based on objectives and budget is key, as they have the experience and knowledge to design the research approach.
2. “Any investigation is better than none”
What does “any investigation” really mean? As previously mentioned, research is essential for the success of a project, but that doesn’t mean research conducted without minimum quality standards — such as experienced researchers, correct definition of the participant sample, methodology selection, etc. — will add value to the project.
Lately, the term “guerrilla” has opened Pandora’s box in the world of research. Guerrilla techniques are those that are carried out when we do not have the time and budget necessary to investigate with the depth and rigor that we would like. It may give good results if the scope of the research is defined and reduced, as in certain projects and prototyping phases where the final idea is not overly defined, but it is far from ideal for all cases.
A guerrilla investigation still requires the investment of people (both those doing the research and those participating by telling us their stories) and time. Investing a little more to achieve higher quality results can achieve a better payback. Again, taking the time to analyze the objectives and determine the best way to conduct the research promotes better product and service design.
3. “It doesn’t matter if you do the research in Madrid or Panama”
It’s worth noting the importance of context and environment. How many socio-cultural differences are there between two cities in the same country? Among different countries? Why test a specific product or service or explore a topic with people who are unfamiliar with it or are not part of the target audience?
Quality research requires careful selection of the participant sample and location, factoring in how participants will help achieve the defined objectives. To design for a specific population, we must understand the people. Where do they live? How do they interact? What are their needs, problems and desires? These insights allow us to learn what we don’t know and/or validate what we think we know, so we ensure the results of the research are useful.
4. “Any design professional can do research”
All professionals on a design team should be involved in research, as different points of view and collaboration increases design quality, helping align the team and ensuring product consistency. However, researchers should take the lead. A fashion designer may be able to design a building, but how might related limitations or differences in approach affect the outcome? For example, a design researcher should have sociology, psychology and anthropology skills that some other members of the design team may not have.
Since a key principle of research is to avoid preconceived ideas and habits, leaving it to research professionals reduces subjectivity and bias and increases the quality and reliability of results. However, research will never be completely objective if we allow the same designers who created a prototype or product to design and conduct user research to determine if the product should be rethought or iterated. When a designer invests significant time and effort into creating a product, it is difficult to view that product from a neutral point of view. Rigor, experience and good practices are the basis of quality research — resulting in a richer, more objective questioning of new creations.
5. “Google does research in a week, so we should too”
The famous Google sprints are a good practice for companies with large design and research teams that prototype and iterate products constantly with a focus on agile implementation. However, this is not the case for all organizations or design and innovation projects.
Consider all the factors before establishing a minimum time for investigation. Then adapt the variables to most effectively conduct research according to established objectives and available resources.
6. “With data there is no need to do research”
The numbers from data analysis complement the analysis and conclusions of user research and vice versa. Quantitative research tells us something is happening. It can even tell us who is doing what, where or when, but it will never tell us why. We get that from qualitative research.
Qualitative research, combined with generative design, allows us to reach very deep layers of knowledge about people’s behavior and attitudes — something that’s impossible to achieve through numerical data alone. Without qualitative research, we may come to hasty conclusions not contrasted or checked with users in depth, and design hypotheses and products not validated by the people for whom we are creating products and services.
7. “The business already knows what customers want”
There is still a belief in some sectors that experience is a substitute for research. But no matter how much experience a professional or group of professionals may have, we can never assume they know everything that users think, feel, imagine, want or need — and more importantly, why.
Experience can help us to make decisions, but it doesn’t give us absolute truth. It’s users and context that we must listen to, observe and study. It is imperative to avoid assumptions and preconceived ideas when designing a product, service, business, system, organization or strategy.
Ending on a truth: better research = bigger impact
Design research professionals do important work. They help design teams, organizations and clients do their jobs better by offering valuable insights and knowledge. It’s time we empower them to take charge of their work and embrace the discoveries they bring. A strong research phase can save projects from wasted time and money further along the line. Let’s harness the power of research, to benefit our teams and the end users of the products we design.
If you want to know more about the value of design research, contact us!
Credits to my dear former colleagues, María Zarate, Alejandro M. Jurado and Marta González.
Gema Cánovas—Associate Design Director, Research & Service Design
Gema is an Associate Design Director, Research & Service Design at frog, where she works with and motivates teams to understand and analyze human needs and expectations to ensure the design of experiences and products that solve real problems for people. She also designs and guides co-creation activities to help teams generate innovative and disruptive ideas for positive impact. Her passion is to help improve people’s lives through the right mindset and design methodologies that match the goals of users, businesses and tech. She loves to learn and share, and teaches Strategic Innovation Management at the Polytechnic University of Madrid and other design and business schools.