Design research and the new creativity

Tom Wood talks design research and its subsequent creative opportunities.

Instead of hindering creativity user research is enabling a creative renaissance at some of the world’s biggest companies.

Creative folk should stop resisting research and grasp the opportunity it presents.

Across a 25-year career I’m sure I’ve heard just about every argument about why creativity and research don’t mix. It creates constraints for creative minds; it allows unsophisticated consumers to kill ideas before they are fully formed; it turns the design process vanilla…the list is long, and rather boring. I won’t give it oxygen here.

Instead I’d like to consider the opposite perspective: that the only way to develop valuable and differentiated products or services is to adopt a design approach which relies upon user research.

First of all, a reality check. Right now the world’s biggest companies are perhaps at their lowest ebb for a century in terms of attitude to risk. In modern corporates failure is unacceptable. This is partly due to the economic cycle and the pressure it has put onto investment decisions, but it’s also due to the advent of social media creating a very public fishbowl for companies to swim in. Shareholders and customers punish poor design very quickly.

At first look this creates a paradox. In increasingly competitive and commoditised markets with increasingly sophisticated and critical consumers there’s potential for competitive advantage through differentiated customer experiences. But the prevailing corporate climate is of risk-aversion and ass-covering. Companies are timid at a time when boldness could be valuable. How do we resolve this?

First: don’t fail

In the modern corporate era traditional creative processes are far less useful than they once were. The gut-feel of a senior executive, or a creative director, or a technologist can be a very dangerous reference point if it isn’t counterbalanced with information about the needs and behaviours of real customers in the real world.

Well-run experience design programmes now allow for iteration with customers in the process. This is most often justified in the business case as a sensible way to stop a bad product developing through wrong assumptions. This justification is correct: Iterating our design thinking with users from earliest concepts through to usability testing does indeed prevent dumb things from happening in design.

The first and strongest justification for design research is to reduce risk. It’s no accident that about a third of my company’s revenue comes from financial services clients. They don’t like risk and they are highly motivated to identify and mitigate it whenever they can. 

Second: allow failure to be part of your process

Design research has another effect within product and service development. It creates moments in the process where it is OK to fail.

On the journey towards a new product, research creates spaces where new ideas can be suggested, explored and nurtured. It creates moments to stop and think. This in turn leads to a more relaxed atmosphere: creativity isn’t a ‘big bet’ we make at the start of a project, it’s a process we commit to throughout the project.

Research can have the same effect as a rubber ring has for children in a swimming pool. The sense of safety and confidence it gives allows you to be more adventurous: to kick away from the side of the pool and enjoy splashing about trying new things. Isn’t that the essence of creativity?

Third: use research for more than yes/no design decisions

The criticism I mentioned at the top of this post – that research kills creativity – almost always indicates using research in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons in experience design.

Particularly in the earliest phases of design, the role of research is to develop ideas with the end user – not to close them down. To simplify this point there’s a world of difference between research conducted within these two frames:


The second frame is clearly an invitation to your user to join a creative process. The first simply asks them to judge ideas that are new to them and that they may not properly understand.

At some point in the process, yes, you kill your weakest ideas. But not before you’ve explored all of your thinking with end users and been open to the possibility of them improving or refining ideas for you. Personally, I’ve seen plenty of design ideas which could have gone on the cutting room floor at first exposure to customers and project stakeholders that have gone on to be key elements of the design solution and create business value that would otherwise have been lost.

Many of the greatest creative breakthroughs that I’ve seen in my career came not at the start of the process where new ideas and concepts were being proposed for the first time. They came a little later, at the point where these ideas are exposed to customers: they break it, but in doing so they often show you a new and better way of putting it back together.

Iterative, collaborative design which involves the end user as a participant represents a way forward for creativity in large corporations which have lost their appetite for risk. It offers a culturally acceptable way to innovate and create in a climate of scrutiny and accountability.

Creative folk should stop resisting research as a component of modern design, and start seeing it as an opportunity to achieve things that otherwise cannot happen in big companies; a tool that they must pick up and assimilate into their craft if they want to make new and better products for the world’s biggest brands.

The future of creativity is one where business stakeholders, designers and customers are all participants. We should all get on and enjoy this new creative age.

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