Point of View
Key to the rise of design has been the growing understanding that successful design is usercentric— that is, a product or service must be optimized around the needs of the people who are going to use it. This focus on the needs of the end user has helped design become a factor not only in the development of products, but also services, organizational structures, and brands.
At its best, design encompasses form and function, utility and aesthetic appeal. The power of good design as a means to create value is epitomized by the success of Apple. The visual and tactile appeal of Apple's simple, intuitive products has helped Apple become the most valuable brand in the world, according to the 2013 BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands Ranking. Similarly, good design lies at the heart of the success of Amazon, where it enables both operational efficiencies and a positive shopping experience.
Market research has something in common with the field of design. Like designers, market researchers set out to uncover insights into human behavior that are relevant to client objectives. And like designers, market researchers rely on research. (Designers might say they are making "observations," but their observations are, essentially, ethnographic research.)
Though these similarities exist, the fortunes of design and market research have gone in opposite directions in recent years, and marketing, the discipline that depends on market research, has struggled as well. We all know the statistics: most new products fail, most viral videos go nowhere, and click-through rates are laughably low. Is it any wonder that a study by the Fournaise Marketing Group finds that 73 percent of CEOs think marketers lack business credibility and fail to drive financial growth?
I believe that one issue underlying many of the problems faced by marketing is the approach that marketers and researchers take to teamwork and collaboration. Contrasting marketers' approach with that of designers may be useful.
In the design process, the same group of people is involved from the definition of the problem through ideation, insight, and implementation. The continuous involvement of the same team of designers creates a seamless process and ensures that the insight remains central to the implementation.
By contrast, the practice of marketing is often distanced from the research function that ought to enable its success, and different developmental stages often involve different people. This can result in misunderstandings, inefficiency, and a dilution of purpose. What starts off as a racehorse of an idea often ends up looking like a camel of a product.
In my experience, the most successful research projects are those that involve the same team of people during the discovery, analysis, and implementation phases. Bringing together multiple stakeholders with different backgrounds and expertise helps minimize the effects of personal bias. It also helps ensure commitment when a final solution is implemented. To shift toward this type of approach will take time and effort, and there will be a cost involved. But if marketers and researchers learn to work more like designers, the result will be more effective implementation of new and valuable marketing initiatives.
What else can marketers and researchers gain from studying the example of designers? Besides their collaborative methodology, is there something genuinely distinct about their approach to problem solving? What are the hallmarks of "design thinking," and do they have any applicability to our disciplines?
Never delegate understanding.
– American designer Charles Eames
Like many creative people, the influential modern designer Charles Eames is reputed to have avoided the "market research" of his time. But I take Eames' command to mean that, whether you employ researchers or not, if you don't have a thorough understanding of a need and its context, you will reduce your chances of implementing an effective solution.
One of the biggest problems facing marketing and consumer insight today is the expectation that "insight" is the responsibility of a specific department or agency. If we learn anything at all from design thinking, it should be that without all the stakeholders–and particularly marketing–being involved in the definition of the central question, the risk that research investment is wasted will be high. If you do not really understand what question needs to be addressed, your research is all too likely to produce vast amounts of information and very little understanding or action.
Question: How many designers will it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: Why a light bulb?
– from a review of design thinking in Fast Company
The quip above may be funny, but it contains more than a grain of truth. An open, curious, and questioning mindset characterizes design thinking. Designers don't accept a brief at face value; they step back and ensure that the definition of the problem is correct. Don Norman, in his article "Rethinking Design Thinking," suggests that there is great power in the ability to ask "stupid" questions, the ones that no one inside an organization would ask because they are blinded by what seems obvious. A friend of mine who works in new product development confirms this, saying, "Designers go back to zero – minus five, even – and work to re-envisage and re-engineer, not just amend what already exists."
Are consumer researchers equally willing to step back and look at the big picture? We researchers are a challenging and curious bunch, but we may be too quick to accept the premise that is offered to us. That is, instead of asking "Why a light bulb?" we may be more likely to ask "What type of light bulb?" We need to be brave enough to ask the stupid questions and to keep on doing so until we get good answers.
To create good designs, you first have to understand people—what they need, want and enjoy, as well as how they think and behave.
– Bill Moggridge, co-founder of IDEO
Designers put human needs at the center of their approach to problem solving. But Bill Moggridge cautions human designers about assuming too much about their human end users. "They will probably be surprisingly different from you," he said, "so it will only be by understanding them that you can avoid the trap of designing for yourself."
Marketers and researchers also strive to understand people, but we need to go beyond their behaviors to understand their underlying motivations if we are to build meaningful and well-differentiated brands. So we need to ask ourselves: Do we really know the people who use our brands, not just as people to be sold to but as people to be served? And if not, how will we go about getting to know them?
Designers tend to rely solely on observation to gain insights and so risk misinterpreting why people behave as they do. By contrast, researchers have traditionally gravitated toward asking questions, using verbal or written probes to understand attitudes and behavior. Ideally we would combine observation of both physical and digital behavior with questions designed to elucidate these behaviors. New tools such as facial coding and other implicit techniques can add a deeper understanding, which is particularly useful when people may not be able to vocalize why they do something. Our job as researchers is to draw on the combination of methods that can best help us understand people's motivations and instinctive responses.
One of the most interesting design tensions today is between cost constraints —especially given the economic crisis— and sustainability constraints, or the impact on the natural environment. Some of the most attractive design solutions are driven by both constraints.
– Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, Interviewed for strategy+business by Art Kleine
All design is about working within constraints. No one should know that better than those who design research projects. What can we use as stimulus material? What interview methodology is feasible? What budget do we have?
Designers understand that constraints help produce better solutions, even when the constraints are budgetary. That understanding applies equally well to marketing and research. None of us have the budget we think we need. But constraints go far deeper than mere budgets. Marketers are constrained by people's ability to appreciate their offer. Time after time, failed "innovations" prove that it is truly difficult to get people to adopt new habits. Brands that are not aligned with consumers' experience and expectations—even if they offer real health benefits or are environmentally friendly—are not going to succeed.
Stupid question: What's the difference between the outcome of a design process and the outcome of a consumer research project?
The simple answer, which may evoke the response "So what?", is that a design process produces something tangible, such as a package, product, or process, while a research project doesn't. Research delivers potential. The ideas and insights we present will have value only if they are acted upon.
Too often the potential of research is not realized. So how can we increase the chances that our marketing insights will be acted upon?
We can work to convey our research findings through something more tangible than a slide presentation. At the very least, we can weave our facts and findings into a compelling story. But we might also go beyond PowerPoint to more experiential methods. For example, we might try to engage our audience in a task, such as drawing up a map of the consumer path to purchase, brainstorming scenarios using Post-it® Notes, or presenting the key research finding in the form of a slice of cake. Above all, we must move people beyond superficial head-nodding to deeply felt understanding.
In writing this Point of View, I have been dogged by the feeling that some of the practices outlined above were once regarded as accepted best practices. Maybe for some companies they still are, but I suspect that for the majority they are not. Why? Because the business of marketing has become overly siloed, fragmented, and data driven. At a time when researchers have more tools than ever to help create insight in a timely manner, we are faced with an even bigger challenge—how to promulgate understanding and inspire action. Maybe the most important thing we can take away from design thinking is the fundamental question: "Does it have to be this way?"