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Design Research: Three Tools for Mountaineering Novel Terrain
Design research is a broad concept. Let’s break it down a bit. I think of design research as a set of three tools for addressing novel problems: foundational research, design strategy, and iterative prototyping. To understand each tool, let’s consider a simple analogy for the process of directed innovation.
Early-stage innovation is like climbing to the tallest peak of a mountain range…
As you stand at the base of the mountain, you realize this mountain is steep and untamed. It has not been climbed before, and there is likely a reason for that.
Not only do you want to get to a summit, but you want to get to the *right* summit — the tallest peak you can climb to — without getting stuck on the lower levels surrounding it.
For design research, this peak represents the ideal fit between design and need, product and market, service and serviced. It symbolizes a problem being successfully solved as well as possible.1
…covered in landmines…
If you make a wrong step at the wrong time it can be game over.2
About 95% of startups fail.3 In my experience, the failure rate is similar for innovation ventures in large corporations and in the public sector.
…in the dark.
In the dark, we cannot see the landmines, or even which path actually leads up the mountain! One of the biggest reasons for innovation’s high failure rate is that teams cannot see the existential risks that surround them or the opportunity ahead of them. Focusing only on your immediate area can give you the illusion of upward progress, but if you can’t see the bigger picture, you are likely to find yourself disoriented atop a much smaller foothill or hit a landmine.
Realistically, you would not attempt to climb this mountain without some basic tools, but teams and organizations often try to innovate without the basic tools provided by design research.
Design research gives us a map, a route, and a flashlight.
Our odds of making it to the summit of this tall, dark, and landmine-covered mountain improve with three tools. A map can tell us which peak is tallest, a route can give us an informed plan, and a flashlight lets us see where we are stepping as we climb (preferably towards higher ground and not onto a landmine).
Foundational research is our map.
The map gives us a sense of where the highest peak and our goal really is, and it helps us avoid getting stuck on lower foothills.
We can use foundational research to obtain a 10,000ft aerial view of opportunities and risks. Here, the highest peak represents the right problem to solve, so we avoid becoming distracted by lesser issues. This map will not show us every rock, snake’s nest, and landmine, but it will give us a sense of the landscape and where we are headed.
Foundational research employs methods like ethnography, surveys, open-ended interviews, and literature synthesis to identify and craft a strong definition of the design problem, as well as any important behavioral dynamics that we will need to keep in mind.
For example, a foundational study on personal fitness might find that individuals who get less exercise tend to be less competitive in nature but possess a mental model of fitness associated with competitive sports. If our goal is to engage more people in personal fitness, we might define the design problem as the negative association between personal fitness and competitiveness. Thus, conducting foundational research lends us an overview of the personal fitness landscape and indicates where we aim to go.
Design strategy is our route.
Now that we have a map of the mountain, we can strategize about how we will climb it. The quality of our planned route is naturally dependent on the quality of our map. Drawing our route through this terrain map is where we turn robust knowledge into a strong plan of action.
There are many possible paths we can take up the mountain. In choosing a path, we are looking for leverage; we want the path that takes us furthest upward while demanding the least expenditure of energy and resources — after all, the air is thin up here!
Strategy requires searching the adjacent possible, which is highly dependent on our existing assets. An attractive strategy for a software company may involve manufacturing new computer hardware, but the leap to do so would incur large costs given the company’s core competency in software. Design strategy often involves leaning into our existing strengths or, otherwise, making big trade-offs.
There is no one-size-fits-all ideal in terms of design strategy, but small, structured workshops like design sprints are one useful way to review foundational research, align on a problem definition, and leverage the diverse perspectives and creativity of team members to flesh out a variety of possible routes forward.
For example, in the case of personal fitness, we could devise any number of strategies. One strategy might be to shift people’s mental models of fitness by devising explicitly cooperative forms of exercise. Another strategy might be to disregard the mental model altogether and instead integrate physical exercise into an activity that is disassociated from personal fitness, like video games. Importantly, we will commit to one strategy rather than attempting to split the difference across various strategies.4
Iterative prototyping is our flashlight.
Our map and route are useful, but they are crude abstractions of the real world ahead of us. In order to see where we are stepping (and avoid landmines) as we navigate on the ground, we are going to need a flashlight. This tool enables us to perceive what is directly in front of us and adjust our steps accordingly.
In iterative prototyping, we instantiate our strategy by creating a quick and dirty version of the product or service experience and testing it with a representative group of our target users. We will then learn whether the idea makes sense to them, if they interact with the product in the way we would expect, how it makes them feel, and where desirable outcomes are achieved or not. We then take these findings and iterate upon them to create a new prototype (and repeat this process multiple times, continuing to progressively iterate).
In the early stages of iterative prototyping, we focus on concept validation and often use mockups or “Wizard of Oz” prototypes. In later stages, we refine lower-level design problems like interaction patterns or materials and may wish to use higher-fidelity working prototypes. Prototypes are not just simple versions of final products,5 but rather they are designed to investigate a particular set of questions. Answering these questions allows us to eventually reach the highest possible peak with our final product.
It’s very possible that we encounter a boulder that was not on our map, and we will have to change our route on the fly. Sometimes, the only way to reveal a risk or a new opportunity is to watch real people interact with a real thing. Thus, iterative prototyping will light the way in front of us and allow us to update our path based on any unexpected obstacles that arise.
By combining these three tools, we can radically improve our odds of identifying the right problem to solve, strategically leveraging that knowledge into a plan of action, and iterating our way towards a refined and well-adapted solution.
Just remember to enjoy the view.
In this universe, without time travel.
I know, a little dramatic — but hey, it’s a metaphor. And when you consider that some of those landmines involve issues like user safety and data privacy, we’re talking about some pretty serious risks.
Based on Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's 2019 study of 30,000+ product launches.
Unless we have an overwhelming amount of resources and see ample reason to run multiple experiments, but even then it’s often a bad idea. Strategy is about focus.
(though testing the back-end mechanics of a proposed technology or infrastructure may also be necessary)