Forget the Risk: How Design Research Empowers Scaredy Cats

Holly Prouty

Innovation and Risk

In an increasingly competitive global market commanded by increasingly critical consumers, differentiated consumer experiences are often what propels one company beyond the next. But corporate culture favors averting risk and covering asses; time and energy are spent advancing conservative solutions to poorly-framed problems, yielding menial competitive advantage.

Risk-aversion dominates US culture, entrepreneurs, and prominent corporations. According to Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “For most people, the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150,” suggesting that “losses loom larger than gains.” This increasing emphasis on low-risk strategy can in part be attributed to:

  1. Fear of instability. The uncertainty of the economic cycle and the pressure it places on financial decisions dissuades companies from investing in new ideas.
  2. A focus on efficiency. Companies develop algorithms, methods, and processes for the masses to follow, favoring incremental projects over radical ones that are less predictable and more difficult to manage.
  3. Preserving public perception. In a hyper-scrutinous and connected world, companies adopt neutral personalities to avoid the risk of a negative social media spotlight.

The unfortunate paradox is that low-risk projects infrequently drive long-term success, but innovation is risky; Real breakthroughs spawn from boldness.

The solution? Design Research. Design research helps timid companies push the limits and manage the risk.

Design Research Drives Innovation

Design research mitigates risk in two ways:

  1. It provides a controlled framework for little failures to occur throughout the process, to avoid catastrophic failures in the end. It enables smart risk, acting as the training wheels on a bicycle, giving stakeholders the confidence to ride a little further, to be a little more adventurous. It establishes moments in the process where it is okay to be wrong, and then allows us to amend these errors and inaccuracies before they affect the final result. Design research gives us time to stop and think — to re-evaluate the direction, explore new ideas, and cultivate the ones that deserve cultivation.
  2. It prevents the wrong products from developing out of wrong assumptions. It gives us the opportunity to counterbalance stakeholder biases with real-world information that considers the needs and desires of real end-users. It brings customers into the process early, eliminating blind exploration.

Counterbalancing Biases

Traditionally, experts are expected to supply answers, not ask more questions. But strategic inquiry is the lifeblood of innovation, and asking the right questions is both an art and a science. The right questions are rarely Google-able questions. Instead they are questions that demand a much more exhaustive search; ones that send the designer through ethnography, analytical inquiry, exploration, and back again.

Framing the problem

Asking intelligent questions and conducting thorough observations restrains us from rushing headlong in the wrong direction, and allows us to elevate, expand, and adjoin our thoughts.

When it comes to defining the problem, the issue is not whether stakeholders agree that it is important to understand the user, it is that too often they feel that they already understand the user and know the problem. But the truth is that frequently these individuals are too close to the project to be objective, and it is a fruitless effort to design for a poorly or inaccurately defined problem. In the words of Einstein, “if I had 1 hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes resolving it.”

While end-users are our focus, there is a misconception that user research will directly tell us what to design. Real creative breakthroughs are not the result of asking the users what they want and obediently developing just that. They are instead the result of understanding the users’ behaviors, and then uncovering the emotions that drive their actions. We do this through asking provocative, well-framed and well-timed questions, and by observing the users performing their usual tasks in their usual environments.

Solving the problem

While research can be used as a tool to offset risk, it is important to control the research to prevent it from killing creativity. The goal of design research is to invite the user into the creative process, without inviting them to preemptively judge concepts that they may not fully understand.

The solution comes from asking questions that help us zoom out and examine the overall context. These questions reveal broader trends and prompt connections between seemingly disconnected entities. We then funnel the information to challenge assumptions and address the root of the problem.

As a researcher, the mission is to keep all ideas alive through the early stages of the process, to allow objective contributors to refine, improve, and expand upon ideas that may have otherwise been considered weak. Rarely do groundbreaking ideas come out in the first, siloed phase of the process. They happen later, after you’ve invited your end-users to come in, break your Lego tower, and help you use those Legos to rebuild a stronger tower.


Design research processes that leverage the minds of business stakeholders, end-users, and designers will pave the path to innovation in a risk-averse world. As designers, it is our job to push disruptive ideas, but help you feel confident in implementing them.

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