Design, Design Thinking and Consumer Research

Design, Design Thinking and Consumer Research

Design, Design Thinking and Consumer Research

Our team was recently involved in a conversation with a prospective client on the boundaries of – and the interaction among – design, design thinking and consumer research. We were challenged to put that notion in the perspective of six trends (e.g., sustainability, sharing and experience economy, 3D printing and IOT, health monitoring), to give a more practical answer. Based on a mix of available academic research, and previous experience, we built a framework to understand the different challenges and objectives among the three functions, within the context of each of those 6 global socio-economic and economic trends.

Trend #1: Sustainability

We already touched upon the importance of sustainability on the brand, and the truth is that, the drivers for sustainability on the product are not different. One way of looking on how to build more sustainable products, it’s by focusing on the three stages of the consumption process, and more specifically at the phases of pre-consumption, consumption, and post- consumption. From this model onward, designers can look at materials required to bring the product to life, by having a view, which must include its commercial readiness: what materials? From which sources? How do we dispose of them? Can they be reused? For how long? And so on. Key is moving rapidly back and forth between each step of the three stages of consumption, to ensure that we properly source and prepare for disposal of each component. This includes, as well, ensuring a trade-off between an always-winning “new-and-improved” mentality, and modular products that can be easily upgraded and whose useful life lasts longer. This aspect is a key challenge for consumer research. In traditional concept testing and screening, a “new-and-improved” concept is most likely to win: and while this is also often true in the market place, it’s a market research aberration, which undermines the importance of the “re-using”, “saving”, “repairing” and “upgrading” dimensions in consumption. In between product designers and consumer researchers, seat design thinkers, whose role is dual: on one end they need to ensure circular readiness for more and more products, while at the same time, devising a creative (business) model for dealing with pre-during-post consumption.

Trend #2: Sharing Economy

While the most celebrated part of the sharing economy is its peer-to-peer dimension, even its being more inclusive then the traditional model, and the excitement of the easiness of access related to the peculiar digital dimension, the most daring aspect of the sharing economy lays on the need for easier to use and more robust underlying physical assets. Hence the designer challenges include durability and usability, whereas design thinkers should focus more on developing the relevant and necessary steps to ensure that, as people, we move from a purchase-to-own to a purchase-to-access mindset. A key enabler of this task is the understanding of the trade off between simplicity and complexity of an multi-user offering, while at the same time identifying the key emotional aspects underlying the stretched usage to multiple users: in other words, consumer research needs to also address on how people’s perception of their car changes, once they decide to use it to drive other people around (for a fee).

Trend #3: Internet of Things

In a previous post on IoT, we have already examined its challenges and risks, especially as it’s getting closer to crossing the chasm. In a nutshell from a pure design point of view, three dimensions rise above the others: connectivity, security and invisibility. The latter is the most complicated one, but probably the most compelling and eye-catching from a consumer point of view. For example, the dream of a super-connected home, relays on the spreading of more reliable and better functioning devices: but which consumers want to have more and more controllers, hubs, voice-activated assistance, in the shape of old-fashioned or modern looking boxes? Who is ready to accept to have more multiple plugs and more cords visible around their own personal sanctuary? And while the designers need to come up with a better strategy for hiding all these devices, design thinkers need to develop an ecosystem of management and control, whereby everything can been programmed in a human-centric fashion: nobody will want grandma to desperately yell and the smart-oven in an effort to bake a birthday cake. Which is why – once again – researchers need to ensure a compelling trade off between more – and more complex – features and simpler access to devices, while at the same time, becoming the filter for outside-in tech innovation which does not fit with a human view.

Trend #4: 3D Printing

From a technological perspective, the challenge of 3D printing it’s the dilemma of materials, or specifically of additive materials and their tech process, which results in the final object of the desire. And while the designers are busy with that, the more creative design thinkers have a twofold objective: first of all the development of business models, which enable and make possible to exploit an ecosystem heavy on intellectual property (e.g., patents, industrial rights and of course trademarks). Moreover design thinkers need to enable platforms, critical for the development of additive manufacturing, without requiring users to becoming expert CAD programmers. Of course the latter, it’s also the focus of consumer research, which needs to – among other things – help ensuring the usability of end-users toolkits.

Trend #5: Experience Economy

This is probably the one of the six trends in this article, whose boundaries are most blurred.

The bottom line is that experiences are intangible, yet very often, bounded to material components. And this entails a list of experiences construction tasks, which could be easily shared by designers and design thinking experts. Nevertheless, while purposely making the boundaries stronger then they are in reality – or in other words by highlighting a dichotomy which is more conceptual than empirical – we posit that designers focus on the building the experience from a product stand point (e.g., features, benefits, materials,…) while design thinkers look at the experience beyond the traditional definition of a category or of a current business system of the firm. And finally consumer research’s duty is to validated the experience from a brand point of view, ensuring that the perceived elements of the experience are relevant – and enhance rather then dilute – the brand positioning.

Trend #6: Health Monitoring

One of the trends we examined in our research on the Blur, is the in-materialization of consumption for wealthy consumers, who are spending less and less on material items and more and more on protecting their health and showing off their education. Lower on the consumption pyramid, people are also faced with an explosion of health-related proposition, whether those are wearables, mindfulness services, sleep tracking apps and so on. Even connected cars and fleet tracking services are gearing more and more towards drivers monitoring and care, as a way to reduce mortality on the roads, by preventing accidents related to drivers’ illnesses.

So, on one end, we have wearables and sensors in general – as they might be installed in our car seat, or a camera tracking our eye movement – which are a core competence of designers. Those are the building blocks of an ecosystem, which is truly multi industry, and therefore a perfect playground for design thinking. Because in the platforms developed to collect and analyze those health data, have a vested interest, not only first care medical professionals or emergency services, but also insurances, automotive groups, pharmaceutical companies and so on.

The main role of consumer researchers, within this trend, is to paint a picture of the privacy edge consumers are willing to let go and share with the various players. Clearly not an easy job, with plenty of consequences on both the product/technology dimension, and the platform and business modeling aspect.

In conclusion

While designers are also design thinkers and researchers, there is a clearer boundary on the role of design, design thinking and consumer research. In a nutshell they overlap and complement each other, by providing strong and relevant pillars to tap into social, economical and technological trends.


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