Design Research History

25 Jul 2009|Darrel Rhea

Here is a short history about the integration of design and research practices…… In the olden days, not so long ago….

Mars & Venus. Consumer Insights professionals and Designer were from different worlds. They attracted different types of people, different ways of thinking and problem solving, and different processes. The practice of market research was managed, funded and initiated by one group of people in an organization, and the practices of packaging design, brand design, and industrial product design by other teams. While they might have worked on cross-functional teams led by Brand or Marketing Management, they mostly operated within their silos. (In my early P&G days, there was an “Art Dept.” and designers were not allowed to talk to brand or R&D folks.)

No common language. First, insights were used to help evaluate the effectiveness of creative design — research “tested” design. Gradually, market research was incorporated earlier and…

was used to “optimize” design by arbitrating between alternatives, or evaluating specific elements. But the research and design processes were separate. Research methods were often conceived without appreciation of the design objectives. Visual stimuli were created without concern for the research methods. Insights were “thrown over the wall” to Marketing and Design who then attempted to interpret the results.

Clash not cooperation. While these groups shared the same end goals, they actually either minimally tolerated or were at odds with each other. It was not a satisfying collaboration. Perfectly valid research methodologies (like focus groups or types of quantitative) were used in ways that were “technically correct” but totally insensitive to how consumers actually are influenced by design. Beauty contests were the norm. Misdirection was frequent. Debate over interpretation was contentious. A lot of designers and marketers decided the research efforts weren’t credible or useful. Market researchers responded by standardizing their research approaches to make them more defensible (…that Army Core of Engineers approach to certified research protocols). This made them even less responsive to the needs of designers.

What’s Changed today?

Not conflict – Convergence. Designers and Researchers have sought to increase the value they create for organizations by expanding their roles and the impact of their work. Led by hybrid groups like Cheskin Added Value, there has been a growing convergence of the practices of applied social science and the practices of design. Researchers who were previously content to focus on identifying the current realities of the marketplace have expanded their ambitions to include facilitating the creation of new designs. They have evolved from a primary focus on “the identification of problems” to a broader role in “the creation of solutions.” Market Researchers are becoming “Design Researchers” or Innovators. Designers who were previously content to use design to solve the problems defined for them by Marketers are now insisting they need to be directly involved in framing the definition of these design problems. This has led them to begin to develop a competence for consumer insights and strategy. They too are positioning themselves as Design Researchers or Innovators.

The customer is now cool. “Consumer-led design and innovation” (and not just creative-based or technology-based innovation) has become broadly accepted in business. Designers who once declared themselves “arbiters of taste” and openly distained empathy for consumers have quickly become champions for a “discovery process” that includes listening to the voice of the consumer. Suddenly, everyone is singing from the same hymnal. Now it is about deeper, more actionable insights to drive design.

From esoteric to established. Design research practices have been developed and refined over a 60 years period, and been applied to all of the design disciplines on a global scale for best-of-class companies. Deep expertise and skill is still limited to a few organizations, with many agencies and corporate teams trying awkwardly invent or discover best practices. Once a “dark art,” acceptance of design research has reached a tipping point, but real rigorous practice is rare.

Collaborative cultures. Designers and Design Researchers are now collaborating and teaming throughout the development process. While the skills and deep expertise of the specialist are valued, so is having “post-disciplinary” multicultural team attitude. The silos are breaking down. There is a great recognition of the value of different thinking styles (left brain analytical and right brain creative).

Strategy is power. There is value in solving business problems. But there is even more value in identifying what problems should be solved and why. Both Designers and Design Researchers are positioning themselves as Innovation strategists to the C-suite, and are creating new competition for the business strategy consulting firms. “Design Thinking” processes are being applied to complex business and social problems.

Want to know where it is all heading next? Contact me…

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