Giving design research a seat at the strategy table

Design research has been a key component of most of the projects I’ve been involved with at Cooper. Since it adds time and cost, sometimes we have to go to great lengths to convince clients to include research in a project. But design research isn’t just about giving the design and product team a leg up on understanding user goals and needs. It’s also about minimizing business risk and validating—or challenging—the current strategy. Typically, the insights we gain by talking with and observing users help our clients look at their business goals through a different lens. In addition to providing necessary input for designing successful products and services, this new perspective helps them make better decisions about the long-term trajectory of their product roadmap and approach. For some products and companies, it can be even more transformative, as the insights they gain help them re-imagine not only how to design and deliver better products, but also how to better structure their internal organization to do so.

Of course, companies can only make these kind of strategic pivots if they have the appropriate decision-makers engaged in the initiative, with time set aside in their decision-making process for integrating the input that may come out of user research. I’ve found that the business executives who treat design initiatives as a strategic endeavor and not just a tactical execution of product definition get much more value for their design dollar.

Research avoids expensive mistakes

One example comes from a project that Cooper did several years ago for a company that makes video editing software. The stakeholders were mildly surprised that many users of their software primarily used the product for making home…erm…boudoir videos. They were more surprised when we concluded, after conducting dozens of user interviews in U.S. and international locations, that the mid-range product they wanted to add to their suite wasn’t going to be at all attractive to users in their target market.

Our research findings were compelling, and the stakeholders listened. In fact, they did more than listen—they acted. They canceled the mid-range product. They cancelled the rest of our project. We don’t like putting ourselves out of a job, but we also don’t get satisfaction from designing a product or service that is destined for failure. The company ultimately saved millions of dollars in design, development, testing, production, and marketing costs.

To act on strategic insights, the train must still be at the station

I remember another Cooper project where we were to design both the operating system and the key application suite for a PDA (remember those?) for teenagers and twenty-somethings. The client was eager for us to conduct design research, but had one stipulation: “Don’t come back and tell us this thing also needs to be a phone.” We did the research, and of course we had to tell them exactly that: forcing users to carry around two devices is going to frustrate them and make the product much less compelling. The client team sighed but agreed with the findings. Unfortunately, there was no room in their larger process to make a fundamental change about the product functionality and price point, so while they agreed with the recommendation, they weren’t able to act upon it. We designed the best not-a-phone PDA possible, but never really were able to ignore the sneaking suspicion the product would never make it in the market. (Ultimately, the product never got released as the company merged with another large company just before the product was to go to market.)

In this case, it’s not that we told the client something they didn’t already suspect (why else would they have asked us not to come back with the phone recommendation?). However, our research uncovered specific reasons why, and provided real data behind the assertion rather than just suspicion. But because there there was no room in our client’s larger process for challenging the current strategic product direction, they couldn’t make any changes to the product’s current trajectory.

Design as agent of change

Fortunately, not all research leads to unhappy outcomes. We have a current client in the financial services domain who reorganized part of their internal structure based on the insights that design research provided. The change allowed them to become more user-centered and more efficiently deliver software that aligned with their customers’ needs.

For another client, a large producer of business productivity software, we discovered an opportunity for a new tool that met some heretofore unidentified customer needs. It turned out that many of our client’s small-business customers had “buyer’s paralysis” when it came to investing in business technology solutions, because they weren’t sure what product suite to buy based on their growth plans. We suggested a tool that let customers play out scenarios based on targeted growth of number of employees, customers, and products manufactured so they could better determine what solution was best for them (and to make them more confident in their buying decision). Because we were working directly with decision-makers as part of the client team, they were able to re-prioritize their resources and the project plan, so we designed the new opportunity first, then went back to our original mandate.

Because both of these companies were open to research, they were able to process strategic recommendations and act on them accordingly.

Minimize risk by maximizing your point of view

Some design initiatives, of course, require a design team to just roll up their sleeves and design a great experience within existing project assumptions and parameters (this is especially true for small feature enhancements to an existing product). But for strategic initiatives, give design a seat at the strategy table, too. It’s certainly not the only perspective that should drive business decisions, but relying only on marketing and technology requirements provides an incomplete picture of constraints and opportunities. Part of a good designer’s value is to provide business decision-makers with new insights about their business strategy by introducing a perspective from the users’ point of view.

In return, stakeholders need to allow time in the process to hear the new evidence and see if it validates the current direction (great!) or points to a new course of action. It’s much easier—and far less expensive—to make those course corrections early in the process, rather than waiting for your customers to tell you by not buying your product.

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Steve Calde

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