Driving Innovation Through Research

Can research be used to drive innovation? How do you research something that doesn’t exist?

Some say research doesn’t help innovators, because ideas are “divine”. Like being touched by a deity, it often feels like good ideas are dropped to us from another universe. In fact, you may have heard that research can actually hamper innovation, because research focuses on the current world, not on one that doesn’t yet exist.
Others say that research is the basis of all good products and services. The argument here is: how can you satisfy your customers unless you know them, their needs, goals and pain points?

In my experience, both these viewpoints are correct. Innovation relies on inspiration, but inspiration can be fed by good research. Some design research techniques are excellent “idea food”.

Inspiration Through Empathy

When new, exciting products or services are launched, we often look at them and think to ourselves, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The first cup holders in automobiles were revolutionary—yet today we consider a new car without one to be deficient.

Elegant solutions seem to “just work.” However, these solutions are more than clever enhancements—they’re relevant to our daily lives, and solve a problem we didn’t know we had. Would we need to have done research to come up with the cup holder? Surely most car designers messed up their lap with a spilt drink at some point?

Consider the ClearRx, a medicine bottle solution designed by Deborah Adler. These bottles solve a variety of problems we didn’t know existed: they have a flat side so that labels can be more easily read; and they include coloured rings around the neck to distinguish them from others, so elderly husbands and wives don’t take each other’s medicine by mistake. The designer wasn’t elderly, but she did ideate by empathising with her grandparents.

So perhaps research helps us to innovate in areas where we, as designers, are less familiar? At the heart of good ideas is empathy—our ability to feel the difficulty in the how somebody currently performs a task affects our will to solve the problem.

Inspiration is Fed by Design Research

The Segway is a popular example of a solution looking for a problem. It’s a clever piece of kit, but does anybody really need it? Actually, forget “need”. Let’s be honest—not many people even really want the thing. It’s just not cool to be seen riding one, or storing it, or charging it, or lugging it upstairs ... Ideating with no basis in reality can see us investing in ideas that don’t have any relevance to the people they are intended to excite.

Good research enables us to live and breathe the problems and desires of our customers.

Once we’re in that state, we can dream up solutions that are relevant. But achieving that empathy isn’t necessarily easy—especially when we’re not living the life of our everyday customer. We can’t simply ask them what they need, because for the most part they see the world as it is, not as it could be. When asked for ideas, our customers may oblige us, but these ideas are frequently arrived at by trying to think of an idea … not through the awareness of their real needs.

Idea Food: Design Research Techniques for the Win!

Empathy is best created by walking in the shoes of customers—by getting close and personal with them. When we design a product or service for people, inhabiting the space in which our new product fits can help us identify needs by watching what they do, not just what they say.

For example, if we were designing a new online video service, we’d need to buy, play, and review videos in all manner of ways. We would observe what is difficult, or annoying, or good about that experience. These are areas in which we could innovate our new service.

And because not everyone is like us, we should watch other people too, because they’ll have an array of different problems and workarounds to show us—more problems in search of solutions. Beyond this, we can look at what sorts of experiences they enjoy, and what values they desire. Do they enjoy simplicity, or does complexity make them feel clever? Are they doyens of cool? Or does the common touch affirm them? What kind of personality attracts them, and how do these manifest in the products or services they love?

Personas and Scenarios

When we’ve watched enough different people doing things in unique ways, we can create archetypes of their behaviours, needs and desires—we call these personas. These become touchstones for recollecting the problems we need to solve, and how we might solve them. Building scenarios to show how a persona will get their needs met through a new product or service experience is a means to run a thought-experiment, communicate and discuss with stakeholders, and build on ideas.

Analogous Worlds

Another favourite technique I use when searching for a “divine touch” draws on analogous worlds. How are the problems highlighted by our research solved in different fields? For example, if I see that people enjoy owning and having movies, even if they watch them rarely, this makes me think: “What other objects do people collect? What do they do with those collections?” All of a sudden the habits and idiosyncrasies of stamp collectors, doll hoarders and bookworms become interesting. How they like to see their collection, order their collection and the significance attributed to each item become the source of ideas for my online video service.

Prototyping and Testing

Research for innovation doesn’t finish before we begin design, but rather punctuates the process with regular customer contact. Because innovating involves trying new ways to do something, there’s a risk that we won’t get things right. It’s easy to get carried away with cool ideas that can run amok, or to assume a solution will be valuable when it isn’t—or at least not in the way we’d envisaged it. We can get too invested in an idea before validating whether it’s worth pursuing.

Creating a rough version of what we think we’d like to build, then allowing customers to use it as we watch, leads us to refine our vision or in some cases completely alter it. Great design is as much about throwing away ideas that aren’t quite right, as it is about creating new ones. Testing not once as we design a product or service, but a series of times, means we can acquire some empirical evidence on which to base course-corrections.

This is the part of design thinking and research that proves to be the hardest to do, because it goes against the notion that we should build what we design, not change it as we learn. It means design isn’t a discreet activity done up front, before building things. It is an ongoing process done before and during building things. The latter flies in the face of Project Management 101 and the conventional wisdom around financial prudence that underpins projects. Product and service providers typically want to quantify the cost of development before beginning, and ‘course-correcting’ creates unpredictability in overall costs.

Nourishing ... Just Like Christmas Pudding

To sum up, while inspiration doesn’t come directly from research, it is nourished by it. The most nourishing research creates empathy through direct and regular contact with the needs, goals, behaviours and desires of customers. There are some classic, but still undervalued design techniques to use when innovating: personas; scenarios; drawing analogies; prototyping and testing. Just because something doesn’t exist yet, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t solve today’s problems and meet today’s latent desires.

Design research is the right way to reveal these things, and to create empathy for your customer while involving them in your thinking process.

Anthony Colfelt

Anthony Colfelt

As a director, designer and candlestick maker for Handmade Web, Anthony builds corporate identities, websites, consults on SEO and social marketing for small businesses. Freelancing as Anthony Colfelt for larger corporates, he researches customers, runs innovation workshops and designs all manner of service touchpoints – digital and physical. He has spoken at conferences and written articles about user-centred-design for anybody who will listen since 2000.

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