Friday, April 12, 2013

Designers and ethnographic research

Occasionally I get in my little old Prius (70,000 miles/112,000 km and counting) and drive for an hour or so, from my home near Brussels, South, to Valenciennes in Northern France. I go there to teach. Well, it's more of a master class. Which sounds very grand but then so am I. My class lasts 3 days during which I start with a question: 'Why are there no industrial designers sitting in the boardrooms of major client side organisations?' (no replies). Next I show them a film, and this really makes them sit up and take notice.

My talk has a backbone consisting of many vertebrae. The backbone is that good design has nothing to do with the success of a product (or service). I don't believe this statement to be completely true but it has the effect of upsetting some of the students quite early on and creating a general hush in the lecture theatre. And the vertebrae of the three days include:

  • Observing in such a way to capture naturalistic, unarticulated behaviour and using them as stimulus
  • Research data does not provide research answers, it only provides understanding.
  • Using intuition to generate actions based on understanding.
  • Difference between insight and observation
  • Insights are two a penny - now try to get a client action it!
  • Using observations to create insights and meanings to then create a framework within which a concept is conceived, refined and finalised
  • Creating a clear audit trail from final design back to observations - otherwise you simply have pretty, subjective, fluff.
  • Building a case for insights, meanings and actions which stand up to the most critical scrutiny

It's a very hard three days. Because, remember, none of these students have ever had to really use research to inform their thinking. Not in such a critical way. Added to which they need to film, edit, critically review and extract meaning from the films, in about a day.

To make it as realistic as possible, each team, once they have completed the research phase, has to present the findings to another team who then start designing. The briefing team then get to mark the design team.

I need to stress that I didn't just make up this process. It came from years of conducting innovation ethnography for the likes of Unilever, Accor, Merck, P&G and others.

The thing that impresses me the most? The realisation that designers are way more creative (especially when constrained) than many research managers, marketeers and planners that I have come across. And to keep them in the drawing office is such a terrible waste.

Are their outputs the same standard as clients who have many more days and weeks to run a project? Yes. If you don't believe me, come and see for yourself next time I run a masterclass. This is an open invitation to all except students.

I will write up some the outputs soon.



  1. This is really interesting but why does Research data not provide research answers? And what's the difference between answers and understanding?

  2. What a great question! In a design context: If you ask a respondent which colours they prefer on a toaster, their answer MUST be treated as 'understanding'. Go away and manufacture (for example) white toasters at your peril! Anything a respondent shares MUST have a layer of interpretation added to it. Interpretation which, simply put, helps you understand why they have responded in the way they have. Watch the Simon Sinek TED talk linked in my post and see what he says about the system 1 and system 2 brain. Once you have understanding, you can make decisions based on your gut feel. A scary thought I know.