6 Rules of Thumb to Successful Design Research

Hi all,

I am in the process of building a Design Strategy organization and wrote these 6 rules of thumb for an upcoming consumer study we are doing. I thought I would share here as well.

Throughout my years of working in consumer-centered design, my favorite part of the process has been getting out in the world to learn and understand how people live their lives. I have always been fascinated with the stories, the differences in people, and most of all the moments of pure emotion that come out when you truly connect with someone.

Learning about people, their problems and absorbing all the unarticulated insights are key to Design Research. And while personally fulfilling, it is also a critical element of product development, regardless of whether digital or physical. As I have learned and applied design research principles across various industries in my career, I have created 6 rules of thumb that I always introduce with my new teams so I thought it would be great to share here too.

Frame the Challenge | Assumptions are the number one cause of failure in consumer centered work. Teams come in thinking they know what the consumer wants, and a lot of times have a hard time breaking away from these assumptions. I believe that these assumptions need to be put on the table before going into the field. Without putting them out there, everyone will walk into the study with their own agendas, which will greatly jeopardize the study. Before beginning any research, I organize teams to first frame the challenge. We gather knowledge, challenge our assumptions and agree on an ambition. We then design the proper research paths to gather the best possible insights.

Build Rapport with the Interviewee | It is very important to make the interviewee feel as comfortable as possible and create a sense of trust with the interviewer. Remember multiple strangers have just entered their home or inserted themselves into their day-to-day lives. You have to immediately make them feel comfortable. Start by explaining why you are there, but then move on to making them forget you are a stranger. Complement them on their home or ask about their family. Find a hook that is going to get them talking. This doesn’t have to be about the topic you are researching. Once talking they will continue to open up. Along with making them feel comfortable, prompt people to tell stories. Stories are more than facts. They reveal how people arrange and approach the world. Ask the respondent to give an example or share a personal experience, rather than sticking to scripted questions.

While telling their stories, never correct their answers. It doesn’t matter if they are technically inaccurate because they are behaving as if it is accurate. Correcting them, can cause embarrassment, or confusion which may derail the interview or cause them to shut down.

Listen with Your Eyes, Nose, & Ears….& Heart | Empathy is NOT listening to the consumer. This is the biggest misconception in consumer research. Empathy is being able to feel how consumers feels. Some of the best insights are discovered through observation of the environment which is gathered through what you see, smell, and overall feel for the consumer. When leading research teams, I always make sure the team is recording their initial observations when walking into a consumer’s environment.

Don’t just listen to what people say, but also observe what they do, how they live, observe their environment, and how they may behave. Look for barriers and workarounds. Probe thoroughly to understand what and how obstacles prevent success. Look for systems or processes that they may have invented to get the job done? These could be physical repurposed objects or an abandonment and restructuring of a task or process. Take note of the compensating behavior and how it effects their lives.

Prototypes Are a Discussion Tool | Consumers cannot always articulate what they are thinking. Bringing physical objects to the study for them to react to is a great way to help them connect the dot. This could be image cards, competitor product, or prototypes to drive conversation. A simple image sort can tell you a lot about how a person views the world around them. You can have them categorize food imagery to have a conversation around segmentations, attitudes towards products, and so on. The imagery gives them something to react to allowing them to structure their thoughts. Product prototypes can also be pushed to the extremes to stimulate discussion with the consumer to get great learning on the boundaries and challenges. These are NOT intended for design feedback but rather quickly identify benefits that resonated more or less with consumers and use their reactions to develop insights.

Synthesize Soon & Often | We have all done an amazing consumer study, only to get together at a workshop and have all your respondents feedback start to run together. You can’t remember the key insights of what Joe said over Rachel, and Sean. You remember big “Aha’s” but you have forgotten the nuances. I always put synthesis tools together and insist that teams do immediate downloads. Spending 30 minutes at a coffee shop after every interview and doing a group synthesis is key to pulling out meaningful insights. The team records their initial thoughts, their key “aha’s” and the slight environmental nuances they saw to make sure the information is not lost. This is also a perfect opportunity to make sure the team is aligned. After a long day of research everything will start to run together. Waiting until the research workshop is not the time to be sorting out your thoughts.

Spread the Empathy | The best consumer studies are ones that energize teams to spread what they have learned with each other and through the business. Immersing a cross-functional team in observations is absolutely key to building wide spread empathy. Too many times design and innovation programs have fallen victim to a small group going out into the field and talking with consumers and then coming back to “debrief” the team. The issue with this is that the whole team has not developed empathy for the consumer. This means that they haven’t created true consumer connections therefor they can’t truly feel the struggles of the consumer. This can lead to debate over research findings, questioning of methodologies, and disengagement. I encourage all functions, R&D, Sales, Marketing, Finance, etc…, to attend the research, broadening their perspective on the challenge and bringing different functional expertise to the insight translation process. This not only makes the insights more robust, it also strengthens team engagement by giving everyone ownership over the insights. The intention is to get them immersed into the consumer’s need, but also to enable them to spread that empathy into the organization. Nothing is more exciting than witnessing a finance team member get very excited over what they saw in the field and telling consumer stories. It blows their mind!!

I hope this inspires you to get out and to engage with and learn from your consumers. As I always love to learn, please share your favorite techniques of gathering true empathetic insight.

One of the profs in my Usability Studies course suggested learning and practicing a quick meditation or even just a mindfulness technique as a method of ‘clearing your mind’ before starting a research session. Rather than ‘empathy’ they tended to speak more about being extremely attentive or aware of what the study participant is saying and doing.
Re: prototypes I think it is important to create a small set of sample tasks that can be performed while the researchers observe and ask questions. Making sure the participants ‘think aloud’ while going through a task with the prototypes is preferable to always asking “why did you do that?”

Good stuff! I’m just finishing up this quarter-long course so a lot is fresh in my mind. (wrote a big paper last night too). Unfortunately there was more of a UX/web/app slant to the course so finding ways like you have described to make it more applicable to ID/prototype exploratory (vs evaluative) research is what I’m after.

Just got back from 2 weeks of customer interviews, most in a foreign language. And technically, the Queen’s english is semi-foreign, at least to me.

The techniques described above are most valuable when you don’t understand what they are saying. The bottom bit about spreading the word is also critical. Make sure what you heard is what they heard. Transcribed notes are sent out to all moderators for edits/clarifications, then sent up the management chain so everyone is on the same page before any project is advanced. May slow things down by a week, but if 6 months later someone says “That isn’t what I heard”, you are screwed.

Thanks Justin,

Some great lessons, tips, and reminders here. Just in time too as I’m heading out for a week of interviews on Sunday!

I agree with the sentiment from Sean to try to get people to do things. I like to look for the delta between what participants say and what they actually do, which sometimes can be quite wide.