This note is my response to an email from a graduating student of the National Institute of Design (NID) in India seeking advice in understanding where Design Research fits in the job market. I have divided my response in two parts. I will first comment on the client and then on the pitch.
There are four broad categories of clients in design research. The first category includes design firms. The majority of design businesses worldwide, especially boutique design practices and firms that are branded around the personality of a single designer, focus on strategy and embodiment of design with relatively less emphasis on design research. However, design practices that employ multi-disciplinary teams typically employ design researchers on staff to better align their consulting services with the strategic objectives of client firms, and are able to charge a premium for their services.
The second category is clients who employ design services. They understand the value of design to their business, and hire a designer (or a design firm) to come up with a “design” that would appeal to their target audience. More progressive clients in this category have worked with leading design agencies that offer research and strategy during front-end phase of design. They understand the importance of additional investment in research to align the design idea with the expectations and needs of the target audience, thereby ensuring its success. In addition to commissioning firms with design research capabilities, these clients will also hire design researchers on their staff to ensure seamless integration of insights into go-to market strategies. Design researchers in these firms often serve as planners, managers and translators of design research.
The third category of clients who hire design researchers have intangible objectives; the expected outcome of their intended design research project is not necessarily a tangible object, image or an environment. They will commission a design research project with objectives such as understanding behaviors of people, cultivating internal knowledge about an unfamiliar or emerging market, or building team synergies around future opportunities for business growth through value addition.
In this market space design researchers compete for jobs with traditional market researchers, business process consultants, HR consultants, and motivational consultants. This category of clients is now increasingly becoming aware of design research services, but they do not always approach a firm for “design research services”. They may approach a design research company for ethnographic research (e.g. Conifer Research), co-creation (e.g. SonicRim), design thinking (e.g. IDEO), business transformation research (e.g. Doblin Group), sense-making (e.g. Humantific), innovation research (e.g. Jump) or market research (e.g. Cheskin Added Value).
Finally, the last category of clients who are drawn to design research are venture capitalists or startups who want to verify the relevance of a breakthrough technology or a product/service idea to the target audience before making an investment. In a three-way symbiotic relationship between the target audiences, the VC, and the startup enterprise, a design researcher is invited to play the role of a catalyst to bring clarity, refinement and alignment (with the market need) to the concept.
At SonicRim, rather than limiting our pitch to clients who are just looking for design research services, we tailor our explanation of our offerings based on what the client is looking for and what the client is expected to deliver within his/her organization. One question we always ask a prospective client is, “how will the outcomes of this research be used by your organization?” Prior to meeting the client we do research and/or have conversations with them about their organization, organizational or team culture, product line, recent successes and failures, and the changes in the environment in which they deliver their product/services. Doing prior research helps reframe the clients’ questions and aligns our explanation of our capabilities and their need. “Reframing the research question” is crucial for the success of a design research project because the dialogue that leads to a well-aligned questions also helps gauge client expectations and and ensure a successful outcome. This process begins before research engagement is kicked off and continues throughout the project.
The clients who have an open mind and are willing to restate their original research question can benefit most from design research. We have had more successes communicating value of design research to clients who know that they don’t know what they don’t know. These clients have greater tolerance for ambiguity, are open to surprises, and allow new directions to emerge from the research which challenge their pre-conceived notions. A typical client of design research understands the value of qualitative research. On the other hand, a lot more dialogue and reframing of expectations is required with clients who have quantitative research backgrounds.
In my professional experience, I have noticed that today more clients in senior positions are recognizing that they need to invest in updating their knowledge of their audience, changing lifestyles, and impact of technology on life in order to compete, survive and thrive. They understand the importance of design research in bringing clarity to fuzzy and complex information about the context for design that has critical implications for business decisions.
Today, people are more dependent on the Internet and information products than ever before. The need for designing Information architecture that is easy to navigate has opened up opportunities for UX (or user experience) research. Knowing how, when and why people need, navigate and use information requires an understanding of human cognition, skills in pattern finding, and the ability to conceptualize creative information architecture and products that make information accessible, understandable and meaningful. The field of information design offers opportunities for design researchers to make people’s interactions with information more useful, usable and delightful. While usability research is relatively well established in the field of Human Computer Interface (HCI) design as a method of evaluating interface design, the value of exploratory design research at the front end of the information design process is opening up new opportunities for design researchers. Creating expectations for an innovative, differentiated, and satisfying interface always captures the attention of the clients who are in the business of disseminating information and marketing information products and services.
The outputs of Design research are often presented as scenarios, stories, frameworks and illustrations of persona. It is important to show examples of how design research outputs help inspire shared understanding within client teams, conceptualization of meaningful ideas and solutions and leads to greater ownership and commitment to move ideas faster to the market.
Creative curiosity is a key competency for design researchers during a pitch. I explain creative curiosity as a mindset that helped Archimedes and Isaac Newton conceptualize revolutionary theories just from observing and interpreting mundane and naturally occurring behaviors. A design researcher not only has the responsibility to help generate research outputs but to also help cultivate Creative curiosity within an organization. Creative curiosity helps develop a culture of learning within an organization and teams. Graduating students in design research will have more fulfilling career opportunities if they can articulate the value of design research both for serving tangible and intangible objectives of their prospective clients.
A key question faced by clients of design research today is, “How do we remain relevant in a competitive marketplace that is continually inventing and offering new value to the customer?”
Complexity (of information ecosystems that our clients need to understand, design, and deliver) and unpredictability (of changes in lifestyles and competitive landscape) are two key areas in which clients face challenges. SonicRim has helped clients in addressing their needs in these areas.
Organizations that make significant investment in consumer insights face another challenge — that of aligning available insights with new teams that are restructured often. Consumer insights buried in reports do not become actionable unless they are collectively owned and acted upon by individuals and teams responsible for translating insights into ideas and taking those ideas to the market. It is hard to keep new teams informed of market realities and inspired by the future opportunities within a specific business unit when they are restructured regularly. There is a need for a catalyst agency that evangelizes customer experience for a business unit and helps them co-own, co-imagine and co-create the future products and services as the teams get restructured.
Overall, design research can help clients determine how to make smart use of creative resources and smart technologies to develop products, brands, services and value propositions that are aligned with the needs and aspirations of their customers.