Why design research?

Agency Design Singapore
5 min readApr 26, 2023

The value of design research in a heavily market-researched world

“Design research? Do we need to do that? We’re drowning in market research already. Can’t we just cut straight to designing what we need?”

We often find ourselves answering a version of this question whenever we partner with large organisations. From segmentations to brand tracking research to ethnographies to search and social analysis, most organisations are drowning in data on the people that they need to engage, satisfy and delight. Why can’t we just use that research to inspire, refine and evaluate the innovations that we design?

There are three reasons why we lean heavily on design research in our work, even when extensive market research is available:

Closing the last mile to the opportunity

Market research is great for identifying the general opportunity areas that can and should be addressed through design. However, we usually find that these opportunity areas are too broad to address directly through human-centred design. There is often a lack of depth and specificity in the insight, especially into the motivations underpinning observed behaviours. These missing nuggets of motivational insight can be the critical keys to unlocking a design challenge.

Our best work is rooted in really specific problems that people struggle with. In aggregating the answers of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people, market research can end up obscuring the really meaty and specific pain points in the service of articulating real but more generic ones that occur in as many people as possible.

In design research, we start by zooming in on the really specific problems that individuals need or want solved. We then work in sprints to zoom out to make sure that our solution works for as many people as possible, without losing the core of truth that made the solution uniquely relevant to begin with.

Closing the do-say, think-say and feel-say gaps

What people say often differs considerably from what they actually do, as well as from what they really think and feel. We love to tell the story of a woman who participated in a health-oriented project that we undertook a couple of years ago.

In our initial conversation with her about the topic of health, she impressed us with her level of knowledge and articulateness about the different things that she and her family were doing to live healthier lives. She spoke confidently about the healthier food they were eating, the more natural ingredients she was substituting into her cooking, and the exercise routines they were doing together as a family.

We then visited her in her home and asked to take a tour of her kitchen. What we found there was not what we were expecting, given our first conversation. Instead of the fruits and vegetables she had spoken at length about, we found an abundance of processed snack foods. This led to a frank and wonderful conversation that created new and significant insights — ones that unlocked the design challenge for us.

People are also notoriously bad at talking about their feelings, especially potentially embarrassing ones, and especially when talking to a stranger. When this happens, people over-rationalise or parrot the things that they’ve heard other people say. This leads to outcomes that should work… but don’t.

Even in the projective and creative exercises that market researchers use to try to get around these issues, the dependence on words remains a barrier. Unless writing is a big part of their lives, most people lack the specificity of expression that would enable them to describe their feelings and experiences in a way that can drive really powerful design and innovation.

Design research closes the gaps between what people say and what they do or feel by engaging in interactions that go beyond words. In design research, it’s key to give people things to react to; the more ways they can react and interact with those things, the better. We become able to observe and then interrogate a rich set of behaviours, to identify issues that people might struggle to put into words.

Our design researchers are trained to spot, interpret and interrogate non-verbal cues. A pursing of the lips, a glazing of the eye, a shift forward or back in the seat — these can all provide clues that lead to better design. For these to be useful, we make sure to smartly, subtly and quickly ask questions or stage experiments that confirm what we think these cues are communicating.

Making the future present

The third reason that we’re wary of depending on market research to inform our design work is that it often demands that people think in complicated ways about how they might feel or behave in the future.

“How satisfied would you be if your room was 10 sqm larger, and had built-in shelving near the windows?”

There are so many assumptions in a seemingly simple question like this. First, we’re assuming that the interviewer and the interviewee are envisioning in their minds the exact same set of physical circumstances. And then, we’re assuming that people can reliably predict how they’d react to a set of circumstances that are not only hypothetical, but in fact are hypothetical in a multi-layered way.

Design research eliminates the need to think hypothetically about future behaviour by making the future real in the present. We find that by doing this, people are able to rehearse how they might behave, in the process learning how they would need to adjust their behaviour when it doesn’t lead to the exact results that they want.

To be clear, we see the value in market research in our work, and often use market research to inform our solutions, especially at the start of the human-centred design process. However, where market research favours neat answers, what we need in the design process are messy and dynamic conversations.

Combining the neat answers of market research and the messy conversations of design research leads to innovations and interventions that not only make it through organisations’ stage-gate processes, but that also actually work.

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