How “design thinking” can unite researchers and creatives

How “design thinking” can unite researchers and creatives:

This article by Paul Leatherdale first appeared on Research Live.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

Henry Ford's infamous quote sums up the fact that the role of research in innovation has historically been an area of contention.

In contrast to Steve Job’s famous anti-research stance, a recent study by Northstar Research with millennial entrepreneurs suggests there is renewed momentum around the importance of research in the creative development process. This is certainly an opportunity for the market research industry – one we should embrace as these start-ups grow to become profitable businesses.

However, the fact that negative discourse remains on the subject suggests research is not always being designed and utilised effectively, and that researchers and creatives must learn to speak the same language.

Arguably, there are a number of major design flaws that fuel our industry’s bad reputation:

  • Turning to research at the very end of the creative process for consumer evaluation
  • Asking consumers directly what it is they want
  • Delivering unfeasible insight

As an industry our challenge is to identify and implement approaches that allow researchers and designers to harmoniously unite and journey together through the creative process. One such approach is ‘design thinking.’

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking works as a guiding philosophy and framework for innovation. At the crux, it seeks to balance the demands of three key parties:

  • Users: what is desirable
  • Technicians: what is feasible
  • Business: what is commercially viable

It achieves this unification of needs via a framework that involves four key stages:

  • Inspiration: generation of a consumer inspired idea
  • Ideation: generation and development of a viable design proposition
  • Evaluation: product evaluation and refinement through visualisation and physical prototyping
  • Implementation: product launch - onto the market and into consumers’ lives

These stages are not necessarily sequential, with experimentation and iteration being a key philosophy of this approach.

It is not just human-centred but deeply human in and of itself, because it relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognise and re-shape patterns and to create ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality.

What is the role of research?

Consumer research and insight is arguably the ideal partner for creatives throughout the design thinking process - right from beginning to end: inspire the design concept; inform its ideation; evaluate and guide product refinement.

Key to researching successfully and valuably contributing to this approach, research design must be sensitive to and align with the needs and mind-set of the end user; that is, the product creatives.

This means thinking like a designer

Designers draw inspiration from outside of the category on which their project is focused; research should tap into the perspective of unconventional consumers, such as extreme users or those who consumer products in adjacent categories to generate new and interesting insight.

Designers are curious; In our world this means digging deep - being anthropological and understanding behaviour. We can’t just rely on what consumers say, we need to adopt ethnographical approaches to identify the myriad of ‘thoughtless acts’ that people use to improvise their way through their daily lives. 

Designers translate. They interpret ideas into product or services that will improve lives. Our role is to translate research findings and observations into insights, and insights into opportunities. This can mean being bold and making some leaps of thinking. 

Designers think big picture and fine detail; our role as insight specialists is to use techniques that help to identify the compelling ‘design concept’ and then specify the important details and intricacies within in the context of this overriding proposition. Outcome-Driven innovation models are a perfect example.

Designers ‘get real’; they manifest ideas visually and physically. Tied to translating insight, researchers should work in collaboration with designers to express insights beyond words. Iterative prototyping is key to design thinking to refine and perfect a proposition.

Finally, designers take a point of view and they have the courage to push it through. Researchers are often accused of sitting on the fence. There is little room for impartiality in design thinking - it is a definitive discipline. Researchers must adopt the same position and have the bravery to strongly recommend the value of insights.