Why Do Design Research – Part 1: Deconstructing the Excuses

It happens. A project has a tight budget or schedule or (gasp) both and the team decides something has to go. Design research is often that something.

On the surface, eliminating research is easy to justify:

  1. We’re the experts in what we do! After so many years in our space, we already know our users and our industry better than an outsider.
  2. We talked to some users a few years ago – really, how much could’ve changed? They still have the same needs, don’t they?
  3. Our marketing department has already done extensive (market) research – we already understand our users’ needs and wants.
  4. There just isn’t enough time or money, and design research is the only step that’s not absolutely required.
  5. We recognize the benefits of better understanding our users; but we’ll just have our internal people talk to them.
  6.  Design research is too expensive; we won’t get enough value for the cost.

 The reasoning is logical, but short-sided. Take a look at history and get the facts:

1.    We’re the experts in what we do….

Icon Health and Fitness, a large exercise equipment manufacturer, desired to create a new treadmill. The treadmill market was (and still is) saturated, so the company wanted to differentiate itself. How does one do this? First, learn how users are currently using the product. The company observed in-home and gym-going exercisers while using the treadmill and soon noticed a trend: people approached the treadmill with items in their hands (cell phones, magazines, towels, iPods, locker keys, water bottles, etc.) and searched for a place to put them on the ground or on top of the treadmill, particularly reading materials. Throughout the workout, users would slide the reading materials over to view the time, calories burned, or some other measurement on the display. For approximately 25 minutes out of a 30-minute workout, users read their magazine/book and spent the other five minutes looking at the display panel. Through observation, the company realized that they needed to redesign the treadmill to incorporate a magazine rack into the console with controls and displays to the side. Although this was a simple concept, it wasn’t available in any home or gym exercise equipment at the time. Now, this innovation is not only standard in treadmills, but also in ellipticals, stair-steppers, and bike consoles. Icon Health and Fitness makes great products, but up until they conducted design research, they were missing an enormous user need. Experts become ‘experts’ by learning all they can about their field; when the learning stops, the expertise stops, too.

2.    We talked to some users a few years ago…

With the saturation of technology, people’s lives are changing rapidly. Pew Research Center recently conducted a study (2013) that found that 91% of adults own a cell phone (up 25% since 2005) and that 17% of cell owners now do most of their internet browsing on their phones. This is a significant paradigm shift. To stay relevant, businesses have to be as agile and fast-moving as their users; relying on user research from the not-so-recent past could result in a behind-the-times, stale product. Are you really willing to chance that your users’ needs have not changed in recent years? If their needs really haven’t changed, have their expectations changed with the introduction of smartphones, tablets, etc.? What might transform a satisfied customer into a delighted one who talks about your remarkable product in their blog or on social media? Design research can guide you to the answer.

3.    Our marketing department has already done extensive (market) research…

Market research is an essential part of developing effective marketing solutions. And it may even tell you something about your users. For example, market research can reveal what features a consumer prefers. But only user research provides the consumer-centric knowledge necessary to determine how to deliver those preferred features and create outstanding experiences – the ones that users share with their friends. According to a recent Mori study, emotionally engaged customers are three times more likely to recommend the product, three times more likely to re-purchase it, less likely to shop around, and much less price sensitive. There’s a great cost to underestimating the role of emotions in design. One thing is for sure, design research is the optimal method for understanding the emotionality of your users’ connection to your product, that same connection that makes them three times as likely to recommend your product to their friends.

4.    There just isn’t enough time or money….

If you think there isn’t enough time and money for design research, how much would it cost in time, money, and personal reputation to fix mistakes based on assumptions and opinions? Design research provides a foundation for informed decision-making throughout the design process. Remember the SunChips® snafu? In 2006, PepsiCo released a 100% compostable bag – an environmentally healthy bag for a healthy snack conscious consumer. But the bag was loud. Really loud. Naturally, users complained and PepsiCo had to scramble to deliver a quieter, earth-friendly solution. In the meantime, PepsiCo released a humorous but costly ad campaign acknowledging the issue and offering consumers earplugs. Had they talked with consumers upfront rather than assumed that they knew the users’ values, they would have learned that although earth-friendliness is indeed valued, people still want to eat their chips without broadcasting it to everyone around them. Ethnographic research would have revealed this consumer preference and saved PepsiCo time and money.

5.    I understand the benefits of talking with users; but ….

Corporate research departments can suffer from a kind of product and marketplace tunnel vision: they’re so familiar with their industry that they often lose sight of opportunities. Their research evolves into a confirmation where simply asking the wrong questions can lead to incorrect findings and flawed conclusions. Professional user researchers know how to properly conduct research and effectively translate findings into tangible solutions, ensuring that the development team stays on the right track to creating user-centric products. Would you pay a racecar driver to act as your auto-mechanic? Or hire an architect to personally lay the foundation of your home? Or ask a skilled veterinarian to diagnose and treat you, your spouse, or your children? Despite adjacent skills, it in no way negates one’s expertise to admit that they are not specialized for the task at hand. Design researchers specialize in identifying users’ product needs, and then they compound those insights with your expertise so you can grow your business and do what you do best.

6.    Design research is too expensive….

Design research doesn’t have to blow the budget. Yes, it requires some time and money, but there are many ways to understand your user and still have the resources you need for better, more thoughtful design and engineering. Have doubts? Stay tuned for part two of this article; we’ll explain some of the techniques that can be used to conduct design research on a budget and tight timeline.

As humans, we are masters at avoiding pain. In product and service development, however, design research helps you avoid greater pains later. Design research mitigates risk… So you don’t have to go back and figure out how to add a magazine rack to your treadmill and interface… So you can meet their technological needs and expectations and not miss the boat… So you don’t have to apologize for a loud bag of chips in an expensive ad campaign and invest in redesigning the bag… Or you can bet everything on ‘red 17’ and hope for the best.

If you’d like to learn how to invest in your product’s success wisely, stay tuned for ‘part two’ next month. We’ll share some of the smart design research techniques we use and train companies to use that save them time, money, and insecurity about market impact.