You’ll find my take on research pretty simple. We, as designers, don’t do or have enough of it. All you need to do is look at the percentage of products that fail miserably in the marketplace. Successful products (those that are profitable for over three years) are less that 10% of those introduced. In any sport that is miserable.
We should stop doing (that type of) research when conditions are stable (not changing) and we find no new information.
So, what else is there?
The answer is always the same - know more about your customers. Spend five years working the store floor. Spend months in observation labs watching usability studies. Immerse yourself in a tradeshow for three consecutive days. Build data driven personas. All of these add to your base of information. Reading, of all things, a book on running I came across an interesting approach.
In Southern Africa, live a small tribe of bushman called the Kalahari. They have an interesting approach. It goes something like this (my online reference points inline).
“Even after you learn to read the dirt (site metrics and analytics), you ain’t learned nothing. The next level is tracking without tracks, a higher level of reasoning known in the lit as ‘speculative hunting.’ The only way to pull it off… …was to project yourself out of the present and into the future, transporting yourself into the mind of the animal you’re tracking.”
This is at the core of what persona building is really all about. It’s similar to method acting. If you can lose a little of yourself in the process of putting yourself in the heads of customers… you will gain some insight. This is far different that introspection or “designing for oneself.” But again, all of this must be data driven.
“Visualization… empathy… abstract thinking and forward projection… When you track, you’re creating casual connections in your mind, because you didn’t actually see what the animal did… …with speculative hunting, early human hunters had gone beyond connecting the dots, they were connecting the dots that existed only in their minds”
You will find, when reading from the library of design, and in particular interaction design, references to “genius design”. This term, coined by Dan Saffer, is not really about a designer who is a genius. What I think Dan means is that the designer has become so intimate with the nature of the customer/user, that they can get inside that role and design for them fluently. It’s an interesting place to be. I have only known a couple of designers who could really pull this off in my career. It takes extreme dedication and a skill set that I almost think you have to be born with. It’s a state we should all aspire to, and a competence we should never assume we have.
NOTE: In no way am I trying to imply that we are hunting those we design for. We are only interested in anticipating their shopping and lifestyle needs so that we can serve them better.
Reference: Born to Run, Christopher McDougall