Where does design research fit into this cycle? Design research has many definitions, but within the product cycle, it consists of studies aiming to understand the activities, desires, and needs of the people for whom a product or service is desired. Design researchers use a wide variety of methods, but all of them, whether it be ethnographic observations, systematic probes, or even surveys, questionnaires, and focus groups aim at one thing: to determine those hidden, unspoken needs that will lead to a novel innovation and then to great success in the marketplace.
In the product world, innovation comes in many forms. The least interesting innovations to the university and company research community are the small, slow enhancements that gradually lower costs while improving performance. But in fact, not only is this where most product enhancement takes place, it is also where the research community can add the most value. This is where ethnographic observation can be powerful, discovering the difficulties people have in everyday use, the workarounds and hacks they invent that suggest product modifications. This allows existing products to be modified at low cost, low risk, yet making them ever more attractive, ever more valuable to the customer base.
But even though incremental improvement is the most powerful and important mechanism for a company, all the excitement revolves around the dramatic breakthrough. And yes, the payoffs from these inventions are so large that their success cam compensate for the risk. But the initial products are almost likely to fail, so it takes a company with money and patience to succeed in these markets. And in these domains, although creativity and imagination are essential, design research, market research, and our beloved careful assessment of people’s needs, whether visible or hidden, are largely irrelevant. The inventors will invent, for that is what inventors do. The technology will come first, the products second, and then the needs will slowly appear, as new applications become luxuries, then “needs,” and finally, essential.
Once a product direction has been established, research with customers can enhance and improve it. Beforehand? Leave it to the technologists. They will get the grand ideas running, but their implications are apt to be complex, overwhelming, and just plain horrid. Horrid applications? Yes, but that’s good news: we will forever be indispensible.
“The grand, breakthrough innovation is what professors love to teach their students, love to write about, and to discuss. But not only is it rare, even the occasional brilliant concepts are difficult to pull off. Yes, it is exciting to contemplate some brand new concept that will change people’s lives, but the truth is that most fail. The failure rate has been estimated to be between 90 and 95%, and I have heard credible, data-based estimates as high as a 97% failure rate.”—Don Norman’s jnd.org / Technology First, Needs Last