You know that investing time and cash in development without really knowing the situation you’re building for is dangerous. You need to know more about your user, but do you need a serious, large-scale design research project, or some quick user validation? It’s really not too hard to find out.
Research projects help product owners mitigate risk by helping us prioritize our investments in ways that will resonate most with our users.
My background and the topic of a good deal of my writing is in traditional, large-scale design research – practices that companies like IDEO or Frog Design to run for Fortune 100 companies in the US and around the world. With my new projects, though, partnering with Monterrey-based Icalia Labs, I’ve been looking at much lighter methods like “Design Sprints” championed by books such as Google Ventures’ 2016 book Sprint (1).
Traditional design research is about getting “out of the building” and deep into the context of your users. Design Sprints are an exciting new way to ideate, prototype, and user-test a new solution.
Which is better – traditional design research or design sprints? That depends on what we’re trying to learn!
What are we trying to learn?
We do research to minimize business risk and find new opportunities, so before choosing a research method, we need to think about the nature of those risks and opportunities.
Do we have a more exploratory problem, where we look out at the world to find new strategic opportunities? Or do we already have some specific solutions in mind that need user validation?
In an interview by former Frog Design President Doreen Lorenzo, Jennifer Kilian, VP, digital at McKinsey, mentions three broad types of research.
- Foundational Research
- Generative Research
- Evaluative Research
In each of these situations, we use different methods to understand different things. Traditional design research is great for (foundational) broad, strategic problems, while Design Sprints really shine for evaluating ideas developing internally. Generative research can be integrated easily into either framework.
Foundational Research Discovers New Opportunities
We use Foundational Research to learn something new or generate completely new ideas for existing situations. Generally, these are situations where the context has a lot of complexity and we’re looking for new, big ideas.
In a business scenario, we may have a large question like “how can we find places in our workflow to increase efficiency?” or “what sort of in-house technologies would be useful to our workforce?” In the consumer realm, we may wonder how to sell a completely new product in a way our user base will understand, or find ways to sell new products to an existing customer base.
Often, we’re looking for a new take on verticals like finance, healthcare, or other subjects that consumers find difficult to understand, so we need to see the existing system through their eyes and visualize mental models from their perspectives.
Traditional design research really shines for foundational research questions. Methods from the foundational research toolbox – such as shop-alongs, in-home interviews, or shadowing – help us quickly get deep into the user’s context to find new opportunities.
These projects can be a little more time consuming and expensive at times, but they’re well worth it for larger, more strategic questions with open-ended answers. For more information about traditional design research, check out my Design Research 101 article.
Generative Research helps us Prioritize and Package Opportunities
With generative research, interview participants help us design a product or service with pre-made components. There is a lot of flexibility here, but we usually come prepared with a bunch of different concepts that we like to see how people feel about them.
- Open-ended feedback on potential concepts and features
- Prioritization of those features in order of importance from a user.
If focused and executed well, generative research activities can fit into either a traditional or Design Sprint framework.
In traditional research interviews, I’ve found it useful to do a generative activity after an open-ended conversation, work site visit, or other activities. Having participants build their own product or service, make trade-offs on features, then describe their decisions is a great way to focus the conversation.
In Design Sprints, we use the first half of the week discussing a bunch of opportunities and ideas, and but we’ll only build and test one on Friday.* If prototype testing is quick enough, a generative activity is a good way to get user insights about our other ideas to influence future design sprints.
*In a single week, we may only attack one problem area, but sometimes we try multiple variations of a concept.
Evaluative Research for Vetting Opportunities
Evaluative research is best for situations where we know our customers well – either personally, or through knowledgeable people in our organization that can give us input. It works great when we already have ideas that we feel are strong, but we want a fast way to validate them.
The Design Sprint methodology really shines for evaluative research. With design Sprints, a team decides on, prototypes, and tests a concept in a single week! These tests are short, and the sample size is small, but the agility with which a team can pull things together and get real feedback is perfect for teams that are able to quickly hone in on their largest risks and vet their best ideas.
Evaluative research generally takes the form of some type of “user testing.” This can fit the traditional mold of watching a person sit in front of a device tapping buttons according to a script, but as books like Sprint are quick to point out, they can also be quite interesting. I’ve been on a team before that tested large, (fake) “touch-screen” displays in an actual, functioning, bank just to give participants the feeling of a natural context!
So what should you choose?
Both traditional design research and Design Springs have a lot of flexibility, so working with a good research team can help find the method that works best for your situation.
Generally, I like to run a traditional program when we’re trying to understand a customer’s context and open our minds to new value proposition ideas. Design Sprints, by contrast, are best for situations where we already know our customers quite well, already have some concepts in mind, and want to understand how a solution can work best.
It is likely that you’ll want to run all three forms of research at different times in a product life-cycle. Traditional design research usually generates a variety of fresh ideas that can be later tested through design sprints. In the end, both structures help us mitigate risk, expand our thinking, and understand our customers in deeper ways.
(1) Sprint was written by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz.
After studying industrial design, I worked as an interaction designer and design researcher for internationally renowned innovation consultancy Frog Design. At Frog, I worked on a range of projects from telco, banking, and smart home consumer experiences to enterprise software for businesses, investment bankers, and accounting professionals.
Lately, I’ve teamed up with Monterrey-based Icalia Labs to combine my background in design thinking and design research with their dynamic software design and development culture to help businesses rethink their digital customer experience strategy.