Keep reality in check

It’s hard to make research work unless you can recreate the scenario that leads to consumers buying one product instead of another, says Martin Lee

A lot of the output from work we do in Acacia Avenue ends up as creative strategy, for implementation by either advertising or design agencies. It’s impossible to escape the realisation that many designers have quite a nervous attitude to research. I don’t blame them. The argument goes something like this. ‘What we do, while it comes from a strategic brief, and responds to that brief, is also informed by intuition and instinct. Often, the best work involves a leap of faith and what happens in research is that the feedback ends up with us playing safe and playing to the lowest common denominator. Any thoughts we had about driving the brand forward with a quantum leap get knocked back to something more mediocre after the research.’

I’ve seen that happen. It’s a nightmare scenario for a designer to see focus groups convened at the end of a long process, where neither the researchers nor the consumers have had any prior involvement in the development of the work and end up sitting in judgement over a decision that often amounts to little more than a preference for design route A, B or C.

It’s a truly unnatural activity to have six to eight people in a sterile room with a one-way mirror trying to talk about why one label of detergent is better than another. You have these people who’ve never met each other, sitting in a place they’ve never been in, which is miked up and on video to be beamed into a room of people who can see them but can’t be seen. They are then supposed to talk naturally about things that are put in front of them. It’s a performance. They are on show, expected to perform, the researcher is also performing, and is at least as concerned with what’s going on behind the mirror as they are with getting an authentic conclusion. The chances of getting a reliable result out of all this are pretty remote.

It’s compounded by the mundane insight that when you give people products to look at in really fine detail what they tend to do – being generally keen to co-operate – is look at products in really fine detail. And that would be fine if they ever did that in real life. But of course they don’t.

So the style, or methodology, of design research is a key issue, but in fact there is an even more fundamental problem, and that is not just the how, but when a new design is unleashed.

The most powerful way to make research relevant for design is to understand the human context in which the brand’s customers live their life and make their product choices and to do that before a single design has been created, be it anything as grand as a store layout or just a piece of packaging.

So that involves being with them at home, or in shops, or showrooms, or anywhere else where the consequence of design decisions has meaning for them. How do brands live in the home? We’ve seen brands whose branding looks great on a supermarket shelf, but completely vanishes inside kitchen or bathroom cupboards, leading directly to them being used less than they might be. For a brand to get cut through under a kitchen sink is even harder than being spotted on the shelves in Asda.

Winning design manages to communicate empathy to the brand’s customers at a subliminal level – it demonstrates relevance and understanding and connects with the lives that its customers lead. Research has a vital role to play in this process, but only if it is employed at the outset, and does the job of connecting the brand and design team to their customers in a vivid, instinctive fashion.

You may well be wondering how all of this helps you get answers to do with A versus B. Well, in a strictly direct sense, it doesn’t. But what you can get is a solid foundation based on reliable insights into why customers are making certain choices, what their deeper, hidden motivations are, and the context in which they make sense of their preferences and choices. By doing this, and then allowing designers to get on with the job of designing, you have much more chance of avoiding mediocrity and having a properly differentiated design.

Making research pay off Be aware that design research requires a distinct approach Understand the human context in which customers live their lives The best findings need to be informed by intuition and instinct The best work involves a leap of faith

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