Gathering Data, not Opinion: How Design Thinking can Revamp Consumer Research Methods

Gaby Gayles
Feb 18, 2019 · 5 min read

Surveys are an oft-used tool in business, science, and politics; they can uncover hidden biases, project product success, determine consumer needs, and gauge political opinion.

In behavioral marketing labs and product marketing teams I have worked on, surveys have been a go-to method for collecting large amounts of data, and fast. Online surveys are particularly popular; round up a group of faceless people from websites like Amazon Mechanical Turk, pay them 50 cents per survey, and voila! You have data.

But just how accurate are these hypothetical surveys? Although using survey methodology is a quick and easy way to accumulate large amounts of information, the responses may not be valid. Surveys most often extract opinion, not factual data.

Here’s what I mean.

While working as a research assistant at a business-focused behavioral science lab, I found that many of the studies being conducted relied on surveys to gather data. These surveys often asked people hypothetical questions about their behavior.

“What would you do if x happened?”

“How likely would you be to visit x website?”

“Would you buy product x?”

Because these questions are all theoretical, when people answer them they are reporting what they think they would do in a given situation (or what they would like to think they would do). The surveys measure people’s opinions about their behavior, not their actual behavior. Don’t get me wrong, surveys are great for collecting large amounts of fast data concerning things like demographics. But they are not good for analyzing behavior.

Opinions are a Problem

Passing opinions off as data is problematic because consumers often don’t know what they want; time and time again, people have misjudged success of ad campaigns, products, and services. The is because people aren’t innately future thinkers. Look at Airbnb, the wildly successful home-sharing platform valued at $30 billion. Before Airbnb’s inception, it was unfathomable to pay to stay in a stranger’s house in lieu of a hotel. In fact, when cofounders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky tried to get investors onboard, they were quite literally scoffed at. The pair presented their idea to Paul Graham, head of Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator, as a last ditch effort to get funding for their fledgling company. After hearing their speech, the first words out of Graham’s mouth were: “People actually use this? Well that’s weird.”

If Gebbia and Chesky had relied on opinions to inform the future success of their business, Airbnb would not exist. Conducting preliminary surveys to gauge interest would have shut down their idea when it was still in its infancy. You could say the same about products like Apple iPad, Post it Notes, even personal computers! Check out the NPR podcast How I Built This here to see just how wrong people’s opinions are when it comes to gauging success of entrepreneurial ventures.

So, how do you get valid consumer research data?

Obviously, there are other consumer research methods besides surveys, many of which can help in obtaining valid consumer data. But, I believe design thinking methodology holds the most promise for generating valuable research insights, a process which I have been lucky enough to learn about through Stanford’s d.school. The design thinking process is human centered, compelling designers to develop an in depth understanding of the people they’re designing for before they build anything. A large emphasis is placed on need finding–observing and interacting with users to determine their needs and wants. Instead of asking people directly what they want (like surveys do), design thinking pushes researchers to explore analogous situations and immerse themselves in the user’s world. Designers make inferences based on their observations, often discovering latent needs that the users themselves are not aware of! This allows them to build successful, innovative products, opening up untapped market space.

The Design Thinking process has 5 major steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. The steps are described below.

  1. Empathize: Arguably the most important part of the design thinking process, this step involves observing users’ behavior in real-time, immersing oneself in the users’ environment, conducting interviews, and consulting experts. Empathizing with the user allows designers to let go of their assumptions in order to gain insights into the user’s needs.
  2. Define:In this step, designers take data gathered from the Empathize stage to determine users’ unmet needs and define the problem they are trying got solve. In this way, they ensure they are tackling the right issue.
  3. Ideate: Here, designers brainstorm potential solutions to the problem posed. This is a time for boundless creativity, imagination, and risk taking!
  4. Prototype: Designers choose a solution and build out initial version(s) of their solution to test its effectiveness. Prototypes don’t need to be fancy–in fact, one of the earliest prototypes for the incredibly successful PalmPilot was simply a block of wood with an interface drawn on!
  5. Test: In this final stage, designers test their prototype to see if it works. More often than not, the prototype fails. They then go back to the drawing board, revisiting different steps of the design thinking process to craft new iterations until one proves successful.

Applying design thinking methods

I believe the design thinking process has potential to be particularly helpful for redesigning consumer research. It is promising for two major reasons.

First, it uses ethnographic research methods, stepping inside users’ shoes to glean insight into their behaviors, thoughts, and desires by observing them in context and conducting in-depth, user-led interviews. Though more time consuming, this method allows for a deeper and more accurate level of consumer understanding than surveys do. Because people aren’t inherently future thinkers–they have trouble imagining and predicting their reactions to products or services that do not yet exist–design thinking is particularly important for gauging success of innovative products. Using the design thinking process, market researchers can uncover needs that consumers can’t readily articulate, paving the way for innovation.

Second, the design thinking process extracts factual data, not opinion. It does this by prototyping products and measuring users’ responses to them. Giving users’ a physical example of the product, no matter how rough, is a great way to simulate actual behavior and gather valuable research insights (again, combatting people’s lack of foresight). For example, instead of asking for consumers’ thoughts on a new digital ad design via survey, the design thinking method would invite marketers to launch a prototype of the digital ad online. Conducting an A/B test, they could record how many clicks the new ad gets compared to the original design–generating a tangible, quantitative way to measure preference. Similarly, if consumer researchers wanted to test if consumers would buy a new type of shirt, they could put a mockup of the shirt design online/in store and see how many people attempt to buy it. Or, you could give a shirt prototype to a batch of customers to wear and ask them how they like it.

That’s valid data, data based not on hypothetical action but on actual, measurable behavior. By using design thinking methods, consumer researchers–and all types of researchers, for that matter–can generate valuable insights and provide more compelling and relevant solutions for their users.

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