Human-centered design — and the research that goes along with it — is an ambiguous world. The nuances of humanity are messy and hard to pin down; so how can we approach our work to ensure that we’re driving to solid product decisions? What can we do to ensure that we’re designing unique, transformational, and differentiated solutions that fit seamlessly into people’s lives? After having been around the block with excellent, mediocre, and sometimes flat-out bad teams, we realized there were two critical mindsets that made all the difference.
Mindset 1: Look for inspiration, not proof
We’re gonna go out on a limb here and say it: design research isn’t about finding proof — it’s about finding inspiration.
Don’t get us wrong. We absolutely realize there is so much value in the confidence we gain by seeing numbers at scale and the comfort we feel in statistical significance. But… the small nuances, the fascinating details, and the meaty stories are impossible to capture with hard data alone. Qualitative research can unlock a whole world of inspiration to draw from. It can open up a team’s eyes and hearts to things they may not have anticipated or even thought about before.
Unfortunately, in most organizations, there is a very different mentality. “Good research” is quantitative, metric-driven, and comes from survey-like methods with a goal of demonstrating significance and truth at scale. We get it — business is about profit, and that profit is better predicted when you have confidence in numbers. The business wants to know how much money is riding on any product decision you make.
Because of this, many design researchers feel pressure to prove their qualitative insights with hard data; but, we believe that such a goal misses the point. Running after numbers is not only distracting and time-consuming, but it causes design researchers to set aside unique and inspiring discoveries as merely anecdotal, just because they aren’t quantifiable (e.g. perspectives from extreme users). It also encourages the widely accepted notion that qualitative insights aren’t valuable until they are proven. Jon Kolko tells us that “an insight is a provocative statement of truth about human behavior that may be wrong.” Whether the “insight” is right or wrong, proven or unproven, is kind of beside the point, we think. The insight serves to provide the team the inspiration it needs to design something transformational.
Embrace the way your research makes you feel, not just what the numbers tell you. Give yourself permission to look for interesting anecdotal stories, even if they are “edge cases.” Not all of the people who ultimately use your product will have the same story; but they all may share a latent need hidden in the few stories that inspire you.
Caption: Your insights should lead you to new, transformational ideas along with a set of well-informed hypotheses that should serve as the metrics you’ll measure out in the world, at scale.
Mindset 2: Look beyond the thing you’re designing
The worst misstep one can make in design is to solve the wrong problem.
We would bet that most of the design research happening right now is focused on answering the question: How do we design this [pre-determined] idea? More often than not, this idea is a half-baked one, coming from an exec somewhere from above (sorry guys, it’s the truth). It’s probably focused on a blatant business need and lacks the depth of understanding of the ecosystem surrounding the problem.
If the design process starts here, a team’s circle of influence will be quite small. Their goals will be decided and they’ll take a reactionary approach, asking: What should this look and feel like? Is it usable? Does this design meet pre-existing requirements and constraints?
The design process, as a result, ends up being about how well they are designing the idea that was given to them — no matter how good or bad it was to start. While this may increase speed-to-market and bypass challenging discussions amongst the team and stakeholders, it isn’t so effective at answering bigger, more impactful questions like:
Is this the right idea to be pursuing in the first place?
What’s the real problem here?
What is the impact on people’s lives?
Who needs it, anyway?
The reality is, what you’re designing is going to be used in a messy, complicated world and it’s going to do something larger than itself. If you’re focused on glorifying and perfecting the idea alone, you’ll miss out on a wider understanding of what it is and could be. Good design research is proactive, not reactive. It shouldn’t focus solely on usability or validating the one idea, but instead on exploring the full range of possibilities to land on the best idea.
Always seek a way to be holistic and strategic. Gracefully redirect and realign the conversation. Dance between the who, what, why, and how. Have an open-minded skepticism about what is and what could be in the world. And strive to understand the problem before there’s even the first idea on the table.
We get that this is hard to do.
It is so deeply ingrained in our business culture to put anything with the name of “research” into a scientific box: proof-oriented, spreadsheet-friendly, and something that can be successfully done behind the screen of a computer. What we’re proposing here goes squarely against traditional business instinct. Adopting these mindsets can be exhausting and uncomfortable, and will probably upset some people once in a while.
But we think you should do it anyway.
It’s better for business. Think about how much crap is out there now because A) nobody took the time to get outside their own heads to understand the people they’re designing for, and B) they anchored to the most obvious pet project solution that customers don’t actually want or care about. Finding the solutions that are going to truly resonate will get you far ahead of your competition.
It’s better for your career. The results of your work will be much more compelling in your portfolio. I mean, which of these sounds better?
Our stakeholders told us that we’d get more market share if we built X feature, so we did this by…
We were inspired by this deeply painful problem and we leveraged our business’s technology to creatively solve it by…
Finally, it’s just more interesting this way. Design research is just as much art as it is science — in fact, we think that’s why we love it so much. With these mindsets, your work becomes a philosophical game. You and your team are like investigators, digging through human stories to solve the mystery and unlock the meaning behind it all. At this point, taking action is so much more fun.
Designer Sarah Calandro and Design Researcher Allison Abbott spent many a weekend morning (over Google Hangouts, coffee, and some welcome interruptions from two playful pups) hashing out what they think makes design research “good.” This is where they landed.