Design Research

with Erika Hall

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Research First

The definition of design is solving a problem.

Erika Hall

Co-Founder of Mule Design, Author, Research & Design Expert

Lessons Learned

The definition of design is solving a problem.

Design in the absence of research is art.

Before "Lean", "Agile", "Discovery" and "Minimum Viable Product", are you solving the right problem?

Resources you use to build a business that no one wants or cannot be viable are a waste.

Research is all about reducing risk.


Lesson: Design Research with Erika Hall

Step: #1 Research First: The definition of design is solving a problem

I can't imagine doing design without research, because the very definition of design is solving a problem. So unless you have acquired some knowledge about the world and about the problems in the world, and the people who have those problems and why they have those problems, how can you design anything?

You know, design in the absence of research is art. If what you're doing, if what you consider design is self expression, that's great. That's great. People can create artifacts or systems just because, but if they're not solving a problem, then they're not doing design. If you haven't checked to see if that's a real problem, then again, you're just making something up and you're not being responsible as a designer.

But, yes, it's been interesting to see some of the reactions to some of the things I've been talking about in the kind of lean, start up and lean UX community. My response to that is that everything I'm talking about can be done as part of that.

My response is why it's, again, going back to making sure that you're solving the right problem because what, you know, and as with methodology or what a lean start at methodology gets you is, okay, we're going to build a prototype and we're going to iterate on that prototype.

But what if you're solving the wrong problem at the get-go? That's what research will tell you. Research will help point you in the right direction, because any resources that you're using no matter how few or no matter how efficiently you're running your business, anything you do to create something that either nobody wants or that can't function as part of a viable business, that's waste.

I think people get caught up in these buzz words. Like, I don't describe what I'm talking about as lean research. It's just research, and there are many, many different kinds. It really is just asking questions to make sure that you're not basing your key business decisions on things you made up out of your head or things that you wish to be true. I think that's a big part of it.

People have an idea, they go out there in the word and they say, "Oh, here's something that I'd like to see exist". But maybe you're a unique individual with unique needs and those, like, who you are, isn't representative of an audience that is representative of a market that needs to be served. Maybe there's something you just want to make for yourself. So go make it for yourself.

If what you actually want to do is create a product that serves real needs and is going to succeed in the market place, you need to understand how those needs are being met and the structure of that market place and where it's going.

I just can't imagine that there's any argument against that, that, you know thinking of something out of your own head that you hope is true or that you think is true is a better basis for business decisions than checking to make sure it at least might be true. Research is all about reducing risk. You start with a certain set of assumptions in your product design process and you talk about what is the risk of being wrong and how can we reduce that risk.

You think about the research you want to do in terms of the time you have and the cost of doing that research versus the cost of just trying whatever you were going to try. So, I think you've done enough research when you feel that you've clearly identified all of the unknowns and all of your assumptions and you validate it enough that you can move forward to the next step in your process.

It might be we have fundamental assumptions about the way people are going to use the product and the way the market place is going. We have gotten some information that leads us to think that, yeah, we were correct.

Now we're going to take the next step. Now we're going to build our prototype. That would be enough at that time, and then, maybe more questions are raised. You know, it's never a process that stops at any time you should be constantly… because the world is constantly changing.

The only thing that you as an entrepreneur or business owner or designer has control over is the little, the tiny part, the thing you're doing, whatever you're designing. The things you have no control over is everything else.

It's up to you to constantly know what else is going on in the world that has implications for what you're building.

Products that are the product of design processes that don't involve research are all around us. Anytime that you have a remote control for your television or your DVR that's too hard, that you can't understand, like, people I think often think that that's a problem in them.

Like they're not smart enough or capable enough or don't have the right knowledge to use these products but really that's a failure on the part of the designer to understand what's important to people, how people think and how these things fit in their lives.

A great example from a couple of years ago of a company not doing its research was Netflix. Netflix is a very beloved organization and brand. Those little red envelopes people love getting them and love the convenience.

Now there's the Netflix streaming service so you don't even have to get a DVD in the mail, you can just select movies to watch, TV shows to watch immediately. A couple of years ago because the DVD business is dropping off because more and more people are comfortable and more interested in streaming media into their homes, they thought, we'll just split off this whole business.

They decided to call it, Qwikster, by a different name and they decided to have two separate catalogs, two separate registration systems. You'd have different log-ins if you were a Netflix customer and a Qwikster customer.

The reaction to this was terrible because they came out and they said, "Oh, this would be much more convenient for people". But clearly their definition of convenient was not the customer's definition of convenient.

This created a tremendous amount of expense for them, a tremendous amount of PR expense and a huge amount of lost good will because people knew what Netflix was. People clearly understood that there were services with DVD by mail and there were services with streaming media.

All of the customers were very comfortable with navigating like that, and they just came in and said, "Oh, we're going to tell you what's more convenient for you," and it was obviously not more convenient. They were not prepared as an organization for this level of disruption.

They had to back off of that and then it was Netflix again. That's something if they had more actual insight into what their customers valued and how their customers thought about their service, they could have had a much more graceful transition.

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