Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Design Research for Innovators

When you have an existing product or service then research techniques and methodologies already exist to gather and analyze information about it, to start planning the next version and future improvements. Building up a data collection and then analyzing existing users and systems through market research tools and surveys, as well as focus groups will yield a lot of great data to wade through to help incrementally improve existing designs.

However, if you are starting a new product or service that no one has ever seen before or had the opportunity to use, what methods can you use in this situation? There is not always something to test against and people cannot have accurate opinions about something they have never seen or used. Jane Fulton Suri chief creative officer at IDEO, suggests in her article about design research, that innovation requires a new approach to tackle the unknowns. Design research techniques can help in future thinking of new products and service insights. She explains that innovation is mostly open ended in its requirements and can be very subjective in nature. She suggest that what is required is what she calls "design research" opposed to more traditional research techniques, that still uses the analysis of objective evidence as before, but the research is enhanced with extra exploration due to the lack of applicable data. These include:

Synthesizing of evidence,
Exploration of analogies and extreme cases,
Recognition of emergent patterns,
Empathetic connection to people's motivations and behavior,
Intuitive interpretation of information with impressions from multiple sources.

These considerations are used to expose patterns with peoples behaviors and experiences, as well as, explore reactions and responses. The purpose of this research is to extend our knowledge and understanding. These allow the researcher direct efforts to probe and prototype against, which will more likely give key insight on unknowns through hypothesis and experimentation.

Design research's value is in inspiring our imaginations and inform our intuitions. Successful design research as Jane suggests requires both a cultural transformation in organizations and perpetuation of those transformations to allow innovation to survive and grow. Design research requires the individual to get out of the office and be where the customer is and see what they see. It is important to get first hand experience out in the field. Design research can be rich and delivers not only facts, but insights into those facts and reasons behind them. She goes onto emphaize that people have needs, motivations, habits and perceptions that all need to be taken into account in new product and service design thinking. Good research should uncover these nuances and allow the experimenter to gauge their ideas against this knowledge.

She summarizes with three different approaches to design research that can address open questions with regards to innovation and how they can be performed and implemented.

Generative Design Research
This is an empathetic exercise, it is descriptive and factual but also speculative and interpretive. We are looking for emergent patterns, challenges and opportunities that can be address with innovation and design thinking. It can be performed by shadowing specific people and observing their behaviors. Having people keep diaries of moods and significant events. It is interactive and contextual and not based on self report or opinions. There is also room for more traditional market research, and trend information searching. The aim is to create a framework for thinking about the domain for innovation.

Learning feedback loops are useful here, with user input and consumer insight gained from using sketches, telling stories. Producing videos and prototypes can be very valuable here to help demonstrate the issues and try potential solutions. The aim is to tangibly represent an idea, probing and asking questions. It gives a chance to address questions and uncertainty as it occurs. It allows you to check peoples reactions and refine assumptions. Collaborative discovery and creation works well in this research method. Using prototyping techniques such as theater(bodystorming) and paper prototyping.

How confidently can we predict success? Looking ahead to estimate the potential of an idea and the future opportunities that maybe be available. This requires more of a business mindset, and is a good skill to acquire, especially for designers. Looking for potential markets and determining viability of ideas. Running live experiments and having labs that run experiments online is good practice.

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