Research has its place, but trust your instincts

There’s a view in design that research impedes creativity. Asking consumers what they want will only confirm their aspirations for products and services already on the market and not support product innovation.

The feeling is that while you might achieve a few sales with a publicly approved, but mediocre design, new thinking is stifled. There’s no room for technical breakthroughs such as the Apple Macintosh, the Dyson vacuum cleaner or, as Henry Ford observed, the motor car. (Most people would have wanted a faster horse, he maintained, had he bothered to ask them.)

But are things really this bleak and does research have no merit? It all depends who and what you ask, according to the researcher line-up at a seminar organised last week by branding design group Williams Murray Banks.

It’s no good posing the obvious questions. It’s what we don’t know we don’t know that’s important, said Simak Salari of ad agency BMP DDB’s Culture Lab unit. Salari has the unenviable job of living with “the consumer”, observing how a family lives, uses products and plans its shopping.

Susan Holder of Future Featuring believes focus groups are invaluable if you cast your net wide enough and recruit people with a passion for the product type, rather than from what are seen as the appropriate social groups. Judging by a job she did for curry giant Sharwoods, involving curry fans cooking up new recipes for free, it is also the cheapest way of developing new products.

These ideas are common sense, but not all researchers, clients or designers are this enlightened. Research up front too often serves to water down a design concept. How much better to integrate it into the production process.

Take the example of James Dyson, who last week told a Design Business Association audience, “There is no such thing as a quantum leap. It takes an enormous amount of effort, then you make it look like a quantum leap.”

For him part of that effort is to bring all broken Dysons back to the factory for repair. By monitoring what went wrong his team can move the product forward. In Dyson’s case, no amount of “consumer” trials at the outset would have persuaded the establishment to take his ideas on board. Continuous assessment has proved the best approach.

Research has a place, but you shouldn’t take it entirely to heart. It’s best used as a creative resource as Holder does rather than as a yardstick to predict the success of a product so bland it couldn’t possibly offend. Designers and clients should trust their own instincts more for that.

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