Forget the Risk        

How Design Research Empowers Timid Companies

April 18, 2017


By: Holly Prouty, Industrial Designer, Beyond Design, Inc.

In an increasingly competitive global market commanded by increasingly critical consumers, differentiated consumer experiences propel one company ahead of the next. But corporate culture favors averting risk; time and energy are spent advancing conservative solutions to poorly-framed problems, eroding competitive advantage.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman observed that “for most people, the fear of losing $100 is more intense than the hope of gaining $150,” suggesting that “losses loom larger than gains.” A recent Accenture study indicates that there is a growing emphasis on risk-aversion when it comes to new product development. According to the study, 64% of executives spanning 12 industry sectors said that they were focused on product line extensions rather than big ideas. Today, only 27% of executives say that introducing a new product category is a primary goal for innovation, compared to 42% in 2009. This increasing emphasis on low-risk strategy can in part be attributed to:

Fear of cannibalism. The fear of cannibalizing profits with new product introductions dissuades companies from investing in new ideas, even if it is known that long-term successes hinge on the transition to a new product.

Inertia. Organizations have a tendency to follow established patterns, favoring incremental projects over radical ones that are less predictable and more difficult to manage. Companies become blinded by assumptions, stuck in routine, and are often shackled by their ties to employees, supply chains, and customers.

Public perception. In a hyper-scrutinous and connected world, companies adopt neutral personalities to avoid the risk of a negative social media spotlight. Further, Wall Street expects certain behaviors from public companies, making it difficult to turn.

Herein lies the paradox – growth requires innovation, but innovation pushes the limits of corporate risk-tolerance. Managers need the confidence to take bold steps to unlock breakthrough opportunities.

The solution? Design Research. Design research helps managers combat corporate timidity, to responsibly take and manage risk.

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Design Research Drives Innovation

Design research is a companion-process to design itself. Design researchers leverage a “scientific method” and human-centered methodologies to learn about driving behaviors, understand culture and context, set the focus of the project, establish hypotheses, and test and validate solutions. Shepherding big change is a balancing act; while the majority of a design process is fluid and creative, design research provides a formalized innovation management system.

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 prevents us from rushing headfirst in the wrong direction, and allows us to elevate, expand, and synthesize our thoughts.

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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.”

Though the end-user is the focus of design, 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. Typical research asks “what” a user does; effective design research asks “why” to engage in a behavior or action.

Solving the problem:
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, 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.

Design researchers strive 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 implementing them.

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