Design Thinking and What It Means for Marketing Research

Design Thinking is getting much press among those dealing in the Front End of Innovation (FEI). Additionally, it seems to bump up with marketing research in many situations. So, let’s explore Design Thinking and what it means for marketing research.

According to Sara Faulkner, writing for the American Marketing Association, Design Thinking is “a form of solution-based thinking that starts with a specific goal and goes through multiple stages of iteration—divergence and convergence—to solve complex problems in a human-centered way. Design Thinking typically includes one or more of the following approaches: observation, interviews, brainstorming, and prototyping.” Design Thinking uses a designer’s sensibility and methods to solve consumer problems using what is technologically feasible to develop viable business strategies to create value and opportunity.

Research and the FEI 

Regarding innovation and new product development, the “front end” presents some challenges for traditional marketing research approaches, including:

  • Lack of Crystal Balls. Consumers have difficulty talking about products and services that do not yet exist. While they are better at identifying their challenges, obstacles, and frustrations, they are not able to identify the optimal solution. (Reference Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”)
  • Lack of Innovation Breakthroughs. Consumers have a hard time imagining what could exist in the future, so asking people what products and services they need usually results in simply getting the next iteration of their current solution. Breakthrough innovations are not typically identified by your average consumer.
  • Lack of Iterative Research. Often, the cost and time investment related to marketing research means that research is only done as a “disaster check” at the end of the innovation and new product development cycle. That is too late for research to have an impact on the front end because teams are reluctant to go “back to the beginning” when they are close to what they believe is a finished product.

Marketing Research in Design Thinking 

Design Thinking cannot be effective in a vacuum. Collaboration, ideation, brainstorming, prototyping, and evaluation are part of any successful Design Thinking process. Here are several ways that marketing research feeds insight to the Design Thinking process for innovation:

  • Define the Problem. Clearly defining the problem to solve is the cornerstone of Design Thinking. Begin with the key stakeholders internally to get a thorough understand of what exactly they want to learn – and what decisions and actions they will take with that learning.
  • Understand the context. Conduct ethnography by visiting consumers’ homes, offices, retail locations, etc. to watch them doing the task in question as they currently do it. Why are they doing what they are doing? Are there any inconsistencies, inefficiencies, or work-around?
  • Empathize. Try to put yourself in the world of your target consumers. Trying to understand arthritis sufferers? Wear thick gloves or immobilize your knees and ankles to “walk in their shoes.” Trying to understand low-income consumers? Try to limit your spending for a few weeks to understand the choices they make with their challenges.
  • Co-creation. Bring consumers into the design process early – well before the design is final, to get their feedback and reaction. Use prototypes or visual imagery (drawing, video, 3-D models, etc.) to make design ideas realistic without relying on consumers’ imaginations.
  • Iterate. A wise person once said, “The only thing we know for sure about our first assumptions is that they are wrong.” Planning to iteratively “check-in” with consumers as you work through the design process keeps you on track with consumer perceptions and needs and prevent the innovation team from straying into unknown territory.

Design Thinking and Marketing Research go hand-in-hand to developing and launch breakthrough innovations. Seeding consumer insight through the innovation process leverages the power of Design Thinking to increase the probability of success.