Challenges and Lessons Learned from Design Research

January 24, 2018

I was a very inquisitive boy growing up. I would constantly ask my parents questions about everything, and it would drive them mad because I was never satisfied with their responses. I would continuously reply to their answers with a single word, “Why?” I always needed to know more. Eventually the “Why” became “What if?” challenging the world around me. I believe it was this drive to know more and push the limit of my understanding of why ‘things are the way they are that lead me to become a designer.

Connect with the User

I joined the Michael Graves Design team in 2010 shortly after graduating. At that time, my primary focus was on our product line for Target. Although the product development timeline was relatively aggressive, we still made sure to incorporate design research into the development process. This was my first taste of design research in a professional capacity, and I learned a lot. One of the lessons I learned early on is that you have to connect with the shopper. It does not matter if you design the best mop on the market. If you don’t connect with the shopper in the 2-point-something seconds you have their attention, you can kiss that sale goodbye. What is going through the shopper’s mind as they are looking at your product (besides price), and how do you make a product that really stands out in that sea of sameness? It often starts in the design research phase by recruiting passionate and invested participants who will give you valuable feedback. The insights you can gather in this manner are priceless.

Find the “Why” in Perceptions

Another thing I’ve learned from my experience is that people’s perceptions are often more important than reality. We see this a lot in today’s politics. It doesn’t matter if a person’s perception is based in reality, the fact that the person has that perception makes it real. As product designers, our job is to figure out why the perception exists in the first place. For example, if somebody thinks a material is going to be slippery, it doesn’t matter if it’s actually quite grippy; that person is going to trust their perception. We have to figure out what about the material made the person think that it might be slippery, so we can begin to understand how to use (or how not to use) the material in our design.

Start Somewhere, Make the Leap

Qualitative research is the process of understanding the needs and wants of all the stakeholders in a given project. Inherently, when you begin the research process, you have very little knowledge, so it can be difficult to predict and design a project around what you don’t know, but that’s also what makes design research fun. You may design your research plan around one set of parameters, but end up looking into 5 or 6 other angles that you could never have predicted. I remember one project that we thought would be a straightforward research and ideation project centered around employee experience in corporate washrooms. The research ended up sending us down the wormhole of restroom consumables and the convoluted web of distributors. Anybody can spitball ideas around how to make the bathroom a more enjoyable experience. However, to lead a successful project that ends up with an actionable plan for your client, you need to understand the entire ecosystem surrounding the issues. You have to understand the needs of all stakeholders so you can identify and appeal to the real decision drivers.


Design research is very fulfilling, but it can be a very arduous task. In order to formulate solutions from our research, we generally begin by writing down every thought in our heads relating to the project. Every observation, quote, detail, interaction, every ‘what if’ thought in our heads. This not only clears our heads from juggling all the information, but it allows us to start physically organizing our thoughts into categories. It’s like turning our brains inside-out so we can think externally and collaboratively. It’s a very organic process, and eventually, the opportunities and directions begin to reveal themselves.

Our design research process is a design within itself. We have the means, methods, and tools to work through any kind of project. Every project calls on us to use different tools from our toolbox to obtain the most valuable information. As a general practitioner of design excellence, we are confident in our abilities to apply our process to any challenge facing our clients, and developing the right research project for that challenge. Striking the right balance of “blue sky thinking” with pragmatism driven by the given constraints is key to success. When used right, research can be an enlightening, evolving tool that makes products better for all.