Researching by Design: How does Research Fit into Design-Thinking Innovation?


Earlier this spring, Newell Rubbermaid announced the opening of a new state-of-the-art Design Center in Michigan, joining an “exclusive club of design-driven companies that recognize design and innovation as a competitive advantage”. Design thinking and design-led innovation philosophies and methods have been gaining significant traction over the last few years , propelled by the likes of IDEO and the opening of the at Stanford. However, nothing says this has gone from the fringes to the mainstream like a manufacturer of curtain rods, trash cans, pens, food storage containers and mop buckets spending millions to open a design center.

What the hell is Design Thinking?

You’re not alone – it’s not necessarily intuitive. In its most fluffy form, the design idealists talk about a ‘way of thinking’, ‘a culture’, ‘creating emotional meaning in products and services’. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, initially described it as “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos”. Um, what?

Personally, I’m pretty sure that design-thinking and design-led innovation just means you have to create a company or design center website full of white space, sans serif and cursive fonts and a picture of a guy wearing a black T-shirt sitting in front of a Mac with quotes like “it’s about innovation worthy of love”.

More tangibly for those of us that don’t live in the creative ether, design thinking is an approach to innovation that brings the elements of design into the process earlier. Rather than just bringing design in at the end of an innovation pipeline to make your idea look pretty, it’s about bringing design into the earliest stages of innovation to help in the creation of ideas that meet consumer needs.

Design-led innovation means creating and developing new products and services that are user-centric and forward-looking – not just discovering solutions that fit with what people do, but also what they might do or could do. It also means creating meaning or an emotional connection by combining functionality, user experience, and llikability This is where it starts to get a little fluffy again; there’s just only so much meaning or emotional connection in a trash can or a mop bucket. I mean, how “love worthy” can many of our everyday products really be? That said, there’s still a lot of room for enhancing likeability, relevance, and differentiation, which are perhaps better, more tangible ways of thinking about it.

Seems reasonable. How do you do it?

Again – don’t worry. No one really knows. This is part of what keeps firms like IDEO and the ever larger crop of design firms in business. Earlier discussions around design-thinking certainly placed a lot of emphasis on having the right crew of ‘design thinkers’ and ‘interpreters’ and ‘ideators’, etc. in place either within your firm or within a consultancy. I think at some point someone realized that it’s pretty hard to find and hire a set of “interpretors who understand and shape the markets they work in” and to identify a “designer’s sensibility” in an interview.

Even IDEO more recently has turned its focus toward helping clients develop a design-thinking approach and mentality to use on their own, rather than relying on an outside firm to own the process. The struggle with embracing design-thinking is that by its nature, it is a broad, strategic philosophy that requires a fundamental shift in company culture, structures, processes, and communications. In other words, to truly imbue design-thinking, you need a well-designed business, not just well-designed products. In a list of top 10 keys to design-driven success, Fast Company’s #1 is CEO buy-in and leadership. #3 is accepting that you probably won’t realize the short-term success that Wall Street demands; and #5 is accepting that measuring return on investment is basically impossible.

Unfortunately, that largely means that actually embracing and implementing design thinking probably goes way beyond the scope of most of our jobs. So do we just wait around and ignore it until we have a CEO that drives the bus?

No, really – what can I do?

In addition to its overarching philosophy and strategic approach to innovation, design thinking is also a methodology for new product and service generation. The key tenets of incorporating design thinking into even ad-hoc product development include:

1. Be user-centric – taking the time to really understand consumer desires and unmet needs via observation and brainstorming – before you ideate. This also means experimenting with solutions and looking for opportunities to co-create with your consumers. In other words, don’t just think about them – involve them.

2. Be iterative – Most of us are still working on a linear innovation track. Brainstorm, idea development, idea testing, concept development, concept testing, product development, product testing, etc. We need to begin embracing a more fluid set of steps rather than being trapped in a linear track.

3. Be experimental – Test early, test often, bring consumers into the conversation throughout the process, and create rapid prototypes to understand the user experience and gain feedback along the way. Stop waiting until a full concept is developed to talk to consumers about it.

Ah, now we are getting a little more tangible…as researchers, we can actually help to drive these tenets in our ideation and innovation research processes by promoting greater consumer involvement throughout the innovation spectrum to experiment with and discuss ideas and prototypes and by encouraging an iterative, rather than linear process to the development-consumer feedback process.

Sounds good, but I also need to be better, faster and cheaper in my innovation research

So how can we bring users into the innovation process more often, and allow for more iteration while balancing the need for better, faster and cheaper? By augmenting or replacing our traditional innovation research solutions and stage-gate processes with user-centric and NPD-friendly solutions that offer more focused, but also more meaningful consumer insights, and are cost-effective enough to be leveraged at more touchpoints in the stage-gate process:

1. Be Mobile – Mobile/Smartphone research solutions can provide iterative, consumer-centric feedback throughout the innovation process, from adding insight into product testing with consumer-provided images and increased touchpoints, to using geo-location to talk to consumers while they are at the shelf, to testing new ideas in rapid 5 minute mobile surveys that reach consumers where they are (on the go) and how they want (short bursts of information and activity).

2. Be Inclusive – Online consumer communities can bring consumers into the iterative process of ideation and feedback, either by building a custom community for broad-spectrum research and understanding or by leveraging plug-and-play communities like the Ipsos InnoCafe for quick, real-time consumer feedback and dialogue when you need it.

3. Be Quick & Focused – Platforms like Ipsos’ Ideas Overnight lets you get feedback on new ideas on-demand when you need it, allowing you to test ideas when you need to, not just when you’ve reached a stage gate. And by focusing on the core metrics that drive choice, Ideas Overnight allows you to be better, faster and cheaper.

Innovating by Design means Researching by Design

The best part of solutions like mobile, communities and overnight innovation testing is that they not only help you foster an iterative, consumer-centric framework to your innovation model, but they actually let you do it better, faster and cheaper than traditional stage-gate research plans.

Even better – wait for it, we’re about to get ‘meta’ here – solutions like these actually represent design thinking as applied to consumer research. Not only do they allow researchers to better leverage design thinking philosophies, they are also developed out of a design thinking approach to the consumer experience in research and innovation, recognizing that while consumers increasingly desire to be engaged in innovation, they also increasingly lack the time and attention span for 30 minute surveys full of attribute checklists and ratings scales.

As more and more companies embrace the concept of design thinking in their innovation process, we as researchers need to ensure we are helping to drive that change, with research solutions that support and enhance design thinking, and with research solutions that are driven by design principles to add more meaning for both marketing teams and our consumer-respondents. Design thinking doesn’t just mean making new products prettier – it means designing holistic solutions that add meaning for consumers – and in our world, it also means researching by design and researching for design.