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Design thinking in research is about more than just speed

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There has been much buzz around agile principles and design thinking as businesses face increased pressure to move faster.

In a nutshell

  1. Although design thinking offers advantages of speed, it's a complete mindset shift in the way we think of research.
  2. With design thinking principles in mind, it puts consumers at its heart, building empathy to understand the real problem.
  3. Design thinking allows us to operate under a leanflexible and iterative framework.

Marketers are constantly being asked to do more, with less time and less budget. Yet, while design thinking offers advantages of speed, its use in research is about more than just moving fast – it's a complete mindset shift in the way we think about research.  

Design thinking is a process of applying human-centred techniques to problem solving, using an iterative approach to better understand customers, challenge assumptions, and arrive at innovative solutions. There are typically five stages; empathising, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing. While people may use different language to capture those stages, the consistent thread is grounded in making decisions led by customer empathy. As Nadella Satya (Microsoft CEO) puts it, “what is innate in all of us is that ability to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes and see the world the way they see it. That’s empathy. That’s at the heart of design thinking… The source of all innovation is what is the most humane quality we all have, which is empathy.”

In an article for Harvard Business Review, leading design thinking strategist Jeanne Liedtka stated that “design thinking has the potential to do for innovation exactly what [total quality management] did for manufacturing: unleash people’s full creative energies, win their commitment, and radically improve processes.”

While the Silicon Valley and software businesses have become synonymous with design thinking, we’re seeing large corporates closer to home make the ‘flip’ to agile structures and design thinking to better understand their customer and build a competitive edge. Westpac, for example, is now employing low fidelity prototypes to get better feedback from customers. The Warehouse Group in New Zealand has reorientated it’s entire business structure to Agile, to allow teams to deploy design thinking across all facets of its retail business.

Insights agencies are also recognising that the empathy & iterative problem solving inherent in design thinking makes it a powerful tool in research. It helps us set aside biases and entrenched behaviour, break away from linear, siloed thinking and processes and yes, move with speed, but more importantly access more creativity and collaboration.

Design thinking gives us new ways of identifying opportunities for growth

Traditionally, customer research has been distanced from the customer. Equipped with pre-existing theories, feedback from focus groups among existing users, large datasets on current behaviour and preferences, researchers have drawn conclusions about customer needs. The problem with this is that the solution is grounded in existing data – customer-led, not customer-focused, reactive rather than predictive. The data is also viewed through the biases of the researcher. And people don't have a chance to fully express needs or explore solutions that don’t yet exist.  

With design thinking principles in mind, we elicit insights and learnings very differently. It puts consumers at its heart, building empathy to understand the real problem and framing opportunities in context, with customers. It requires us to lean on cultural understanding of the context surrounding people and the decisions they make, as well as use of observational and projective techniques to uncover needs they may not have even known how to express, or problems they took for granted. It changes the experience of the researcher, helping them to set aside their own views and giving an authentic voice to the customer, elevating and enabling them to better share insight through informed dialogue and inspiration.

How is this impacting research methodologies? With design thinking taking hold, we’re seeing the elevated role of  cultural analysis & in-situ immersive qualitative techniques as the early, foundational stages of innovation, rather than relying solely on large, often time & cost prohibitive quantitative segmentation or U&A (usage and attitude) studies. This not only helps identify problems to solve faster but gets to a deeper, more actionable understanding of how to solve early on.

Breaking away from traditional stage gated approaches

Traditionally, moving innovation along the development pathway has focussed on a “brainstorm and screen approach” based off an existing set of KPI’s and comparisons to databases of often outdated existing norms.  Incorporating design principles into research doesn’t mean just moving faster through this traditional insights journey (we are not building faster horses here). Design thinking allows us to operate under a leanflexible and iterative framework, one that is truly agile and allows us to experiment, test and learn as we go. 

At each step of the research process, we create an environment where people can try new things and challenge existing assumptions. We ideate and then experiment via co-creation and iterative collaborative exercises with integrated sprint teams to create minimal viable products. Imperfection is not discounted, rather built on. And in doing so we keep great (and potentially disruptive) ideas alive that might well have been culled by traditional testing.

How is this impacting research methodologies? Design thinking unburdens us from the pressure to craft ‘final and polished’ concepts to put in front of customers for validation, rather the onus is put on the research and customers themselves to help craft and optimise the solutions. Clients are coming to research agencies with the broader challenge of ‘how do I simplify my customer experience’ as opposed to ‘which of these ideas should be prioritised?”. This is giving rise to techniques such as ‘immersion qualitative sprints’ that allow for iterative thinking versus more traditional point in time concept testing.

Breaking away from the traditional “us and them” mentality

Clients and research agencies often play a separate but equal role in the insights world, but with the introduction of design thinking, collaboration in research is truly celebrated and integrated into the ways of working.  Customers and design partners also now form the third and fourth pillars of a truly cross-functional team. This allows insights research to become a true collaboration between organisations and the people they serve, find the intersection of customer need and business viability. This ensures all the insight gems found along the way are felt by those designing customer solutions, rather than lost in translation during execution. Even the best ideas can fail as a result of poor execution; collaboration is essential for ensuring success.

Heinz is a great example of a company that used design thinking principles to understand how to best redefine a product – baked beans – to suit their customers. Overly simplistic understanding of what customers wanted initially led to a few failed products, such as gourmet beans in metallic pouches.. Using a more empathetic, design thinking led approach, Heinz went back to focus more on what consumers really wanted from the product by taking a more observational approach – watching customers in situ interact with products, and experiment with alternative solutions along the way.  This adjusted approach which fostered collaborative iteration culminated in a much more compelling solution – an affordable, healthy and tasty product to jazz up midweek meals. 

Applying design thinking principles to insights research is the best way to achieve outcomes in line with what consumers really want or need. Speed might be an added bonus, but the real value lies in iterative, collaborative and more empathetically driven learning that can help us redefine entire categories and deliver truly disruptive solutions for people and of course organisational success as a result. 

This article first appeared in the August-October 2022 edition - Human Insights - of The Research Society’s publication Research News

Headshot of Terri Hall, Partner at TRA in black and white
Terri Hall
Managing Partner, TRA Australia
An insights leader passionate about putting people at the heart of decision making and ensuring businesses make decisions that will truly drive value and impact for the customers. A believer in the power of customer insights to transform brand, CX and innovation programs from strategy through to execution, Terri applies this mindset to a diverse set of clients across telecommunications, FMCG, services and alcohol across Australasia.
Nikki Davey
Head of Innovation, TRA Sydney
With twenty years of experience in marketing insights and consultancy in South Africa, the UK and Australia, Nikki's passion lies in partnering with clients to drive growth through innovation - uncovering the insights that ensure new products and services thrive in market.

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