Grounds of Mystery: A Design Research Experience

Every office has them — the people who can’t function without a morning cup o’ joe — and Daedalus is no exception. Recently, this crucial morning ritual mysteriously turned bitter (literally), threatening the cognitive functioning of many Daedites. Being an office of researchers and engineers, we did what we always do … investigate!

We quickly realized that this little problem exemplified common tendencies we see when conducting design research and showcased the reasons why design research is important.

First, we found that many of our coffee drinkers hadn’t really liked the coffee even before it turned bitter! It wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad, just kind of mediocre. But no one had complained and making the coffee better hadn’t really crossed anyone’s mind. Our coffee drinkers simply brewed the same thing every day, not questioning the routine.

This illustrates why waiting for customers to tell you their opinion about a product or experience won’t work. Repetition of the same task desensitizes us to improvement opportunities, and customer voices are often only heard in extreme cases — when something is profoundly amazing or painstakingly atrocious. But it’s the mediocre aspects of a product — the ones users “make do” with — that can make the difference between a great product and a good product. And until you engage your user through observations and interviews, those mediocre aspects will stay hidden, simply because customers often don’t question the routine.

But it does turn out that some of our coffee drinkers were already solving the problem in their own ways. One was creating his own concoction, “I’m … buying 2 espresso shots from Einstein’s and adding that to a 1/2 cup of the office coffee….” Others were buying coffee elsewhere or adding flavors to mask the taste, “I’ll add more chocolate creamer and sweetener if necessary.”

This illustrates yet another example of the importance of design research and an issue we commonly see – the user has already fixed the problem, so the corporation never knows that the problem exists. You won’t see the workaround if you don’t directly engage the user. In surveys, the user probably won’t mention it as a problem because they no longer view it as a problem.

We saw other issues that we often encounter during design research. One coffee drinker responded in-depth to an email that was sent asking about the coffee dilemma without answering the questions posed. Another sidestepped the questions and immediately provided a possible solution. Someone else publicly voiced their opinion over “reply all,” inadvertently influencing responses from other coffee drinkers. Another insisted she didn’t care and would drink whatever was there — though later admitted to having a preference — she just wasn’t motivated enough to share it.

In the end, we solved our problem and the journey was enlightening. The answers you’re looking for aren’t instant — and design research is the perfect percolator.