20 March 2015

Design research: Driving innovation with insight

Design research empowers us to innovate confidently. It has the power to inform our vision of what digital products and services need to accomplish to be successful.

It brings real-world insight into both businesses and their customers, saving time and money by clarifying what is needed to build the right thing.

To understand the practical value of research, we have to get under the skin of it's role in projects, businesses and growth.

Research is a tool for businesses

For these businesses, business-as-usual is no longer business-as-usual.

A couple of years ago, some colleagues of mine worked with an international airline to reinvigorate their digital services. Airlines have been having a tough time. The industry’s iconic imagery of streamlined glamour and luxury have been replaced by aggressively competitive international carriers and digital customers empowered to shop around. For these businesses, business-as-usual is no longer business-as-usual. Caught in the whirlwind of rapid change created by digital innovation, business landscapes shifted and new customer behaviours emerged.

In a crowded marketplace with bargain-hunting customers, the best way to compete is by providing a clearly better service - but it’s a lot harder than saying “make the food better,” plus that isn’t going to win you any friends.

Like many businesses, airlines have a hard time identifying where services can be improved without breaking the bank. Thin margins, sensitivity to local legislation at serviced destinations and volatile fuel costs leaves pretty sparse options. At the same time, decades of legacy business practices have, in many cases, created business cultures adverse to change.

For more businesses than just airlines, the new business-as-usual is rapid, iterative change. To reach new customers, to create new ventures, to stay relevant with changing customer demands - to truly innovate - change is vital. My colleagues had a fair challenge ahead. After fifteen years of the same-old-thing, our client was struggling to see where improved service opportunities lay, and they wanted to invest their hard-earned resources into a solution that could offer them a clear vision.

Design research

Design research gives us the confidence to venture into the unknown, and to resist the allure of simply trying to repeat past successes.

Any creative endeavour is a journey into the unknown. Creating digital services that are fit for purpose requires us to collaborate with new teams, to build trust, and to venture forward together into new territory. Michael Arndt, a writer at Pixar, describes his experience of creating the unknown as “like hiking a mountain - blindfolded.” In the context of designing digital products and services, research is our way of finding our path up the mountain.

Finding the mountain

“The first trick,” Arndt says, “is to find the mountain!”. Change is the goal, but it’s important to know that the path you have chosen is change in the right direction.

“We know we need to improve our customer experience,” a client recently said, “but, with so many opportunities selecting the right direction is a huge challenge.”

If done well, research should reveal paths to success. Research gives rise to a better understanding of the marketplace our clients operate in, and a clearer picture of their stakeholders’ expectations, cutting to the most important issues and the needs that must be met if an endeavour is to be successful.

Research is for

More relevant products and services

With a realistic picture of the environment, the customers and their needs, we can ensure that the services and products we design will function and bring delight to their users - in whatever contexts and scenarios they’re used.

Reduced risk, increased ROI

By identifying decisive scenarios in which a digital experience needs to perform, research helps to prioritise and target opportunities for increased return on investment and measure how they perform. Measuring impact and validating decisions allows for better and faster decision making, reducing costly procrastination and getting focused, usable products to market faster.

Improved customer relationships

Research shines light on new market opportunities, but also makes it possible to test and validate new ways of thinking, making and doing. Research gives us the confidence to invest in products and services that have never been done before, differentiating from competitors, resonating with customers and working towards business goals.

Better agency/client relationships

Through shared understanding and a sense of ownership in the collaborative process, research and it’s role in fostering understanding brings agencies and clients closer together.

An ongoing realistic overview

With a better picture of how products and services are used, we can measure the success and cost-effectiveness of features, identify opportunities for improvement and target areas for growth.

Research is not:

For asking people what they like

Research should reveal unmet needs, establish context and inform achievable goals, not kowtow to taste or personal preferences.

For post-rationalising choices

Research should inform and validate, not be cherry-picked to support pre-selected ideas.

For throwing data at a problem

The point is to unlock useful knowledge, not misdirect with esoteric data. The ultimate goal of research is not simply to produce data, but to produce actionable insight - data is one part of this, but analysis and synthesis creates insight that informs decisions.

A one off

Research doesn’t have to be a single step when creating a product, it can inform and validate ideas throughout that product’s entire life.


Focused research that is specific to the purpose and goals of a given project needn't be costly. With an array of tools and methodologies that can be tailored to unique projects, design research can validate ideas quickly and economically. In fact, insights from research can save time and money by ensuring they are invested in solutions that have the greatest potential impact or provide that best competitive advantage, and not wasted on recovering from blind spots and unexpected bumps in the road caused by false assumptions.

In conclusion

Great research feeds innovation by giving teams relevant, timely and verifiable information. We can ensure that our designs are fueled by a real understanding of the people and businesses they are created to support by asking questions like: 

  • What are the specific problems our experience is solving?
  • What are our unique competitive advantages?
  • What needs or features are most important to our customers?
  • What environments will our service be used in?
  • What kind of language, structures and visual cues do our customers best understand?

Whatever path a project may take, research guarantees that the trail up the mountain will be wide enough for organisations to follow and that everyone will reach the top together.