One of the most rewarding aspects of being a designer is witnessing a person’s positive experience with something that we’ve helped create. Design has the power to stir emotion, whether you’re talking about physical space, branded communication, product design, or any one among dozens of other touchpoints. It’s what sparks connection and reaction, and that spark is what we’re always looking for as designers. We want people to engage with our designs, and (even subconsciously) recognize the impact their experience has on their relationship with the company or organization.
Design for the people, by the people.
In order to reach that goal, research is critical. We have to understand as much as we can about the people who’ll interact with our designs in order to design effectively for them. Research gives a design project’s end user a voice; it makes design more democratic and drives more positive results for the client. When thoughtfully embedded throughout the design process, research creates a better understanding of the design problem, and provides a better business case for making design decisions. It makes the connections clearer and stronger between us and our clients, and between our clients and their customers or end users, and it improves the outcomes of the design for everyone involved.
Of course there are many different kinds of research that can be relevant to a specific design project rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Quantitative research like surveys and audits allow us to measure and test different topics, and to gather data that is objective and precise. Qualitative research, on the other hand – like focus groups, interviews, visual image exercises, or observation studies – requires interpretation of patterns and themes and can be more subjective, but more personal and emotional. There’s also secondary research, which leans on existing studies and reports written by outside authorities, versus conducting new, original (or primary) research. And all of it can inform the creation of personas, scenarios, or experience maps. Any and all research methods can be relevant and effective, as long as they’re thoughtfully planned and implemented with the end user in mind.
Look (closely) before leaping
I believe that research should always be step one in the design process. It’s never appropriate for a designer to propose fast-tracked solutions and immediately implement without some sort of research and testing along the way. It’s imperative to understand the design problem and to recognize that the real problem is almost always a little different from what’s initially stated. We have to dig in to understand the underlying issues. Think about what, why, and for whom are we designing. Dig deeply into that end user, their current situation, and the impact design can have on their future situation. And then after completing initial designs based on that early research, create prototypes that can be tested at a small scale, researched further, and redesigned. And only after the best solution is reached, implementation can occur.
Some might argue that this prolongs the process or adds expense, and this is why it’s important to execute a research strategy customized to each specific assignment that is actionable and that adds meaningful value. Information gathered just for the sake of information, or analysis to the point of paralysis, is never fruitful. You have to be able to do something with the research you’ve conducted. Done right, research is worth these extra steps and ensures return on investment every time.
Here’s why: Consider that many (if not most) of the design projects we take on are about major organizational change. A company is moving to a new office building. A town is redefining its brand. A hospital is implementing a new wayfinding strategy. A shopping center is being reborn as a mixed-use development. A sports venue is integrating new technologies with new sponsors. The list goes on, and each example involves significant change that impacts hundreds if not thousands of people – customers, employees, tenants, fans, students, patients, partners, travelers, shoppers, and so on. Each of those individuals has specific needs, wants and desires, and yet also wears many different hats. One day that employee is also a traveler and a shopper. Another day, that same person is a student and sports fan. And on yet another day she’s a patient, all while every day she’s a mom. Each of her daily experiences informs the next and means this one individual is a wealth of information and insights, whether she knows it or not. So when she’s asked to play even a small role in her organization’s change – through research – she feels valuable, and more importantly, valued. Asking your project’s stakeholders for input along the way often equates to buy-in, and that goes a long way toward creating powerful emotional connections and spark. You’re engaging people throughout each phase of the change, which makes the end result less disruptive and much, much more positive for everyone involved.
Empathy for the end-user.
It takes an innovative client to let designers talk to and co-create with the end users, but I encourage all to consider it. Take the company that’s moving to a new office building as an example. The way that company manages this change is critical, after all it’s not just a person’s workspace that’s being disrupted but also their commute and many other aspects of their professional and personal lives. Maybe moving offices means they have to find a new daycare center for their child, or a new dentist to visit a couple times a year during lunch breaks. Maybe it means someone on their team chooses to leave the company and needs to be replaced. These are not small details to the person who must deal with them. The process of managing change requires two-way communication – asking questions (research!) and providing answers (information!). This is where design come in. Every touchpoint can influence attitudes and behaviors, and must reflect the company’s mission, culture and values. Employees are the living brand – the ambassadors of the company who interact with customers or partners or clients or even future employees. When they feel like valued and informed participants in the bigger picture, then they pass that positive experience on to others inside and outside the company, and they share excitement about moving and changing, rather than fear or frustration.
Mapping out goals and messages can help the communication be clearer and more effective. With a framework like the one illustrated above, we map out goals – the outcomes we target – on the right, and we identify how and what we communicate with tone and manner, messages and content on the left. And all of it is funneled through the people we serve in the middle. This is the crux of user-centered design: people are always at the core. Sure, research can (and often needs to be) very rigorous, and this is why a framework and an organized research plan is always necessary, but when implementing research into the design process, we have to focus on people and experiences, which isn’t always that straightforward. It requires designers to be great listeners and observers, and to operate with unassuming empathy.
Design to Move People Forward®
Through research and by constantly looking through the end user’s lens, designers and our clients can make informed design decisions at every step along the way. This is what democratic design is all about – empathy for the end user. We investigate the who, what, where, when, how, and (perhaps most importantly) the why. We analyze and interpret without bias, without prescribing solutions based on our own experiences, but rather by observing their experiences through a variety of research tools and tactics, and really listening. We – and our clients – show that we care about the people we’re designing for. That care will show in the smile you’ll see when the person experiences your design for the first time, and to me that’s the greatest reward.
This article is based on Greg Nelson’s presentation, “Designing for Your Users: Integrating Research into the Design Process” at the 2018 SEGD Branded Environments conference in Las Vegas, NV.