Design Research: The Perfect Tool for Our Paradigm Shift
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Design Research: The Perfect Tool for Our Paradigm Shift

September 25, 2020

John Phillips

In a post-COVID world, consumers are re-evaluating what matters, learning what they can do without, and establishing new behaviors that serve suddenly-reshaped needs. The stakes have rarely been higher for brands to truly meet consumers where they are. Enter Design Research.

As a unique discipline, Design Research is tailor-made for the types of challenges brands are suddenly facing, now more than ever before. Whether your area is insights, marketing, product development, user experience, or innovation, Design Research is a must-have in today’s toolkit.  

This post offers a quick look at:

  • What Design Research is
  • What makes it ideally suited to meet the current moment
  • How brands can leverage Design Research now for maximum benefit

Adapting to the “New Normal” 

I have a hunch: you’re getting tired of hearing how “unprecedented” these times are, of being reminded at every turn how much things have changed. It feels like every vendor email, newsletter, and brand communication in the last 6 months can’t pass up the opportunity to tell us what is so (painfully) obvious. “I know, I was there. I had a front row seat!”

But I have another hunch, too: that you and your organization have come to terms with the changes the pandemic so rudely imposed on your industry… and have turned your collective attention to what should we do now? While the situation remains fluid, the “new normal” in a broad sense is here. Determining what to do about it is exactly what Kelton is tackling now with the brands we partner with. And Design Research is among the principle ways we’re doing it, methodically — and creatively — uncovering the answers to the big strategic questions du jour:

  • What exactly has or hasn’t changed for my industry, brand, etc.? 
  • As the dust settles, how have our customers’ perceptions, priorities, and preferences evolved? 
  • What does that mean for where we go from here with our offering? 
  • And how can we ensure our next steps really hit the mark? 

Questions simple enough to ask, yet daunting in the importance — and scope of implications — for brands. It’s these kinds of questions Kelton uses Design Research to answer.  

Brushing Up: What Is Design Research, Exactly?

You’ve heard of Design Research. Maybe you know a bit about it, or your organization has even adopted a Design-based approach to certain initiatives. Perhaps you’ve even seen Kelton’s Design Research 101 eBook. If so, you’re ahead of the curve (though the curve is catching up).  If you’re just getting your feet wet with DR, that’s fine too. Take the plunge — the water is wonderful!

Design Research (DR for short) is a distinct “genre” of research that combines the theory, skill sets, and processes of Design with those of Research. It shares some core DNA with qualitative research in terms of theory and methods, but stands on its own as a distinct discipline. DR uniquely looks at humans as users of products/services, with a keen focus on optimizing functional and emotional experiences. Its “raison d’etre” is to provide systems and structure for the process of making these improvements, whether incremental or disruptive.

The tl;dr? DR is the special sauce for informing and guiding product or service innovation. To that down-stream, application-oriented end, there are a handful of powerful tools and principles that Kelton’s design researchers use — from “challenge reframing” to the Jobs To Be Done approach. 

And DR isn’t new. Born in the 60s and coming of age in the 80s, it’s basically the Gen X of research methods — but it was made for just the kind of insights-to-real-action needed to meet pivotal moments of change (like the one we’re facing now). Actionability is a prerequisite for success of any DR engagement.

Unique Benefits of Design Research for Today’s Challenges

Acknowledging the precariousness and inherent obstacles brands face right now, it helps to take a step back. Like any moment of crisis, the tumult forces us to make decisions. The need to adapt presents opportunity. 

In a COVID and post-COVID world, consumers are re-evaluating what matters, realizing what they can do without, and establishing new behaviors that serve suddenly-reshaped needs. The stakes have rarely been higher for brands to truly meet consumers where they are. Which underscores the importance of acting in a thoughtful, strategic way based on actual user needs. The most valuable action brands can take is not just gaining empathy for their customers in the new normal, but applying that empathy with purpose and confidence. 

DR’s defining characteristic (and dare we say “superpower”?) is its focus on applied empathy.  It goes beyond traditional qualitative research in order to connect the dots not only between the “what” and the “why,” but also the “how.” DR can deliver this additional value in a range of ways — here are just a few:

  • Emphasizing context to boost real empathy (e.g., gathering customer feedback within the actual situation(s) in which they engage with your product or service in order to base insights more on practice than theory, more on action than recall).
  • Incorporating creativity in generative exercises (e.g., imagine customers using LEGO bricks to mock up their own in-store UX to generate richer insight and unique discussion points that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred). 
  • Leveraging original design artifacts to aid the research (e.g., design researchers can turn category trends and other early inputs into “seed concepts” to bring into primary research, thereby maximizing the scope of learning and grounding ideas in something concrete).
  • Using frameworks that help create clarity for subsequent decisions (e.g., employing an outcome-driven innovation lens to unpack core Jobs and sub-Jobs within them to boost the degree of certainty in creating a solution they’ll want to “hire”).

DR exists specifically to go beyond identifying what has changed and what that means — pairing a philosophy, tools, and tactics to clarify exactly what should be done to create products and experiences that meet your customers where they are.   

Putting Design Research to Work for the Greatest Effect

Design Research is the methodological bedrock of Kelton’s Experience Innovation practice.  Our EI team plugs into many of the thorniest challenges our client partners engage us for, with experienced DR practitioners familiar with workstreams at the intersection of UX, innovation, marketing insights, and product development. As our team continually learns and grows, here are a few best practices we’ve confirmed for getting the most out of DR.

#1. Find a DR partner that can also be an advocate. Double duty isn’t unheard of. Seasoned DR practitioners who know their craft are capable of and eager to play these tandem rolesThey can serve as a strategic partner in leading the charge within an engagement while also helping you build stakeholder buy-in, excitement within the core team, and ultimately more organizational acuity around Design Research. This takes many forms: facilitating stakeholder ideation workshops and Design Thinking trainings; crafting insights and strategy engagements around a user-centered, design-based through-line; and leveraging visual design capabilities to add fidelity and dynamism to critical project milestones.

#2. Immerse yourself fearlessly… to the greatest extent possible. To some degree, “immersion” has become a cliché — a go-to darling of the qualitative research universe. And not without reason. But what does immersive research mean in an era where in-person fieldwork is off the table? Indulge a brief analogy. Though somewhat anachronistic in the age of electric vehicles, there’s long been a saying in the automotive world: “There’s no replacement for displacement.” In essence, while there are many ways to boost power or augment engine performance, nothing makes a bigger difference than the raw size of the combustion.

In principle, the same holds true with immersion. There’s no more effective means for gaining true depth of insight into your consumer experience. In lieu of “in-situ” research (until we can safely and ethically incorporate live research again), we can employ a combination of new technologies, clever ways of working with them, modified methods, and genuine human empathy to achieve a similar degree of immersion with depth, nuance, and authenticity. Design Research adapts while keeping the same laser-focus on exploring and vetting solutions that apply insights, not just identify them.

#3. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules… even your own. Rooted in a Design approach, DR is inherently iterative and works best when there are strategic allowances for some flexibility.  Iteration is a key way to maximize the ROI of a DR approach. Brands can extract the greatest amount of value and make the biggest strides toward meeting strategic goals by working with a seasoned DR partner. Embracing an approach that uses sequential, iterative research phases helps rapidly translate challenges into solutions that are viable, feasible, and desirable.

Our depth of experience in applying DR has also taught us the benefits of accepting a degree of uncertainty inherent to the course of innovation work. Expect rigor, establish clear success metrics, and apply established best practices where possible — while also remaining open-minded about the process. Practicing comfort with ambiguity and unfamiliar processes is liberating and offers the breathing room for better outcomes to emerge (not to mention it’s a healthy mental exercise!).

Get in Touch

Curious how to make Design Research work for you? Reach out! Whether you’re in need of a fresh approach to insights work that emphasizes action, or simply looking to boost organizational acumen with new capabilities and partners, our Design Research experts are always eager to help.


John Phillips

Senior Director, Design Research

With a background in product and service design, John provides a different perspective on design research and strategy with an emphasis on tactical implementation. As Senior Director of Design...

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