FEATURE1 June 2010

The product of a healthy relationship

The relationship between researchers and product designers can be a rocky one. Paul Golden looks at how market research can make sure it promotes creative thinking rather than obstructs it.


Product design is a significant economic activity in the UK. According to a study published by the Design Council last year, 11% of design agencies work in product and industrial design employing around 26,000 designers. The impact of market research on this process is considerable. An earlier study of the design processes used in leading global companies also from the Design Council found that the initial influence or inspiration for a project most commonly came from information about user behaviour – and that the most formalised source of inspiration and information was the outcome and interpretation of market research.

Andrew Needham, CEO and founding partner of research and co-creation agency Face, says the importance of market research has increased in line with the greater role played by consumers in relationships with brands, especially over the last few years with the advent of Web 2.0 and the ‘empowered consumer’.

Previously, Needham says, consumers would have been seen as passive respondents to what the brand was producing. Now the process is much more fluid and there is a greater opportunity for consumers to become active participants. They don’t just tell you what they want, they show you what they think the product should look like and what it should do.

“The key is to get consumers to show you a solution to a need they have already shared with you,” he said. “Social media provides them with tools that can facilitate their creative input so they can really play a role in the design process, reducing the distance between the consumer and the designer and allowing designers to gain stimulus from this interaction. This process also allows for interactivity between the designer and consumers during the production process as well as at the planning stage.”

Even amid the rise of social media as a new source of information, researchers still have a valuable role to play in analysing and interpreting the data generated.

The inspiration factor
Philips Design’s senior manager of research, innovation and development, Reon Brand, agrees that if market research provides contextual narrative and insights that really inspire and guide creativity, it can heighten creative development. “Creative processes are often more intuitive, while market research tends to be more fact-based. It is therefore important that market research communication is tuned towards inspiration,” he said.

One of the most important – and perhaps least appreciated – areas in terms of understanding how research output can be optimised is what happens before the research even begins, says Stuart Costley, director of design research agency The Big Picture. “Clients and designers need to know how to create the right stimulus package to take into the field. Too often, concepts or the product itself are presented in a manner that isn’t consumer-friendly, either in the language used or in terms of the context in which the new product is presented.”

Stimulus materials include cartoon strips to portray service propositions, storyboards, video, prototypes and other tools, such as eye-tracking technology for testing user interaction with software packages.

Costley describes the initial exploratory phase of the research process as one of the most useful, mainly because there is no need for finished models so stimuli can be developed cheaply, allowing resources to be more usefully focused on developing prototypes that have shown good potential rather than on a range of potentially unknown quantities.

When handled properly, this stage of research allows planners and developers to identify potential design territories on which to focus development of more finished (and expensive) prototypes, while providing clues as to the type of stimulus that needs to be developed for these subsequent stages – for example, the context in which consumers need to be exposed to the concepts, the level of finish required and the need for working or non-working models.

Needham says that by involving the consumer in the design process, the client can avoid a lot of potentially wasted time during the early stages and reduce the disconnect between the original vision and the end result.

Too many voices
But there can be downsides to all this interaction. One of the obvious potential problems is that the designer becomes weighed down under a deluge of opinions and ideas from countless consumers, and this is where the analytical skill of research professionals comes into its own. Research analysis helps the client to group insights together, identifying strong needs and putting them in strategic context to give the designer some broad direction. It also increases the value that market research can add, making the job more interesting.

Market research is sometimes seen as the death knell of creative thinking. Costley acknowledges that this does happen, but usually when techniques are applied that fail to take account of the specific challenges posed by product design research, particularly the importance of context and of stimulus.

One of the most common criticisms levelled at trends research is that future trends are sometimes researched in isolation from design thinking, with this thought process applied only after a trend has been identified. In order to bring design thinking closer to new business areas, product opportunities and user needs, many businesses have set up design research units whose main purpose is to generate new ideas alongside design thinking.

A number of the companies that participated in the Design Council survey found that actively encouraging (and in some cases expecting) their designers to take part in user research allowed them to gain faster, deeper insights and better product ideas. For example, Starbucks sends its designers to work as baristas in its stores for up to a month to fully immerse them in the coffee and user experience of the brand.

Time to consider
Reon Brand agrees that products need to be seen within the context, experience and meaning they add to people’s lives and that it is important to consider the experience over time, not just during a single encounter. According to Mat Hunter, chief design officer at the Design Council, the type of market research required also depends on what stage the company is at in the product development process.

“There can be an over-reliance on market research, which leads to it being used either as a scapegoat for poor decisions or employed too soon in the creative process, stopping ideas in their tracks”

“The large-scale quantitative approaches that help corporations understand how their current products and services are being purchased and consumed and that can inform useful incremental innovation, do not work as well when trying to inform evolutionary and radical innovation,” said Hunter. “In those cases, small-scale qualitative research is undertaken to understand latent needs of consumers and these become a much more fruitful generator of future design ideas. Later on in the process the more classic quantitative techniques can be brought in, once the design concepts are clearer and more robust, to help confirm that a project is heading for success.”

It is not unusual for designers and development staff to hear what they want to hear from the research, rather than what the findings actually say, admits Costley. “Researchers who consistently encourage designers to step back from their creations during the research process, setting aside their maternal instincts, are brave but ultimately the only really useful researchers.”

He is also critical of clients who commission different research agencies to handle concept research and design research, suggesting this prevents the agency researching the design from having an input on the concept. “This can lead to difficulties when what clients interpret as a design failing is in fact a concept issue that design cannot solve.”

Hana Thomas of design consultancy Smallfry agrees that while market research can play a crucial role in product design and development, there are dangers. “There can be an over-reliance on market research, which leads to it being used either as a scapegoat for poor decisions or employed too soon in the creative process, stopping ideas in their tracks before they have even had the chance to be realised.”

Thomas refers to the value of ethnographic research to her company’s work in product development and describes studying people in their own environment, under a relevant context, as the “ideal way” to truly unearth latent needs and desires.

Stephen Conlon of Design and Marketing Management, a founder member and former president of the Institute of Designers in Ireland, says researchers should also solicit opinions from people within the client company. “As part of any new product development process it is essential that all aspects of research are undertaken – often the most strategic thinker in the company is the person whose opinion is never sought.”

According to Reon Brand, the responsive and listening brand that engages its audiences in the creative process as well as in dialogue has a major advantage in our increasingly social-media driven world. However, all research methodologies have their limitations. While consumers can react to what exists and relate back to what they know, some of the designers surveyed by the Design Council felt that consumers were less able to contribute to the development of completely new product or service concepts for the future.

The vision thing
Academic studies of design-inspired innovation refer to products where the design has not relied on ‘classic market analysis based on surveys or focus groups’, due to a belief that ‘radical innovation of meaning is not pulled by the market [but] results from a vision about a possible future.’

Nick Leon, managing director of ethnographical research specialist Naked Eye, accepts that while good market research keeps the human element at the front of designers’ minds, history has shown that some great designs and great design thinking had nothing to do with market research and much to do with the designer’s vision and talent.

He says the fact that almost all the leading product design firms have an in-house team or people dedicated to gathering and analysing market research is testament to its importance, but is not convinced that the public perception of market research in the context of product design is equally positive.

“I think the general view is that market research is about behavioural change, essentially manipulating our behaviour as consumers. While there may be some truth to this, it is the public that votes for which designs or products we choose to live with and which ones we send to landfill.”

But research plays a more important role than is at first apparent, says Leon. “Consumers should understand that good market research has prevented a huge number of poor product ideas and designs getting on to the market in the first place.”

Paul Golden is a freelance journalist focuses on topics including science and technology, finance and media. His work has appeared in Irish, US and UK titles including Technology Ireland, Global Wireless, Life Sciences Review, Financial News and Irish Marketing Journal