Influencing Decisions with Design Research

As designers, we see it as our responsibility to come up with the best solution possible to any given problem. But how well do we know the problem? Can we influence how a problem ought to be solved?

In this talk, Steph discusses about the challenges and rewards of bringing research forward in the design process—how we can better articulate the value of design through research, so that we can begin to use design research to drive the direction of organisational strategy.

Stephanie Troeth – Influencing Decisions with Design Research

Research is really about building evidence, particularly about the why.

For a long time research was heavily tied to speed, performance, efficiency… sometimes literally about the efficiency of CPU cycles. “Hello Bitcoin!”

Research needs to include failure stories.

Facebook and Twitter were happening by 2006; the first iphone came out in 2008; and Ethan Marcotte’s post about responsive design was 2010.

Ten years pass quickly.

In 2008 Steph was working on The Book Oven, trying to solve the problems authors faced getting books written and proofread. She added a feature called Bite Sized Edits which let people proofread single sentences in minimal context. People in traditional publishing didn’t understand it at all, but people in tech loved it.

Their main competitors were not competing authoring products, they were actually Google Docs and MS Word.

Catch 22: if you are making something that doesn’t exist yet, how would people know they want it?

But Steph realised this wasn’t the right question to ask, there was an assumption they were really doing something that was new. They were a solution looking for a problem.

Here’s an existential question: Is it bad Design if nobody wants to use it?

In most organisations, there’s not a high level of design and research maturity. How do you put a price on something? If you get it wrong, you lock things away behind a price people aren’t willing to pay.

To have strategic impact, you must understand and use the language of business.

When you talk about value you will quickly get to trust. Customers need to feel they can trust a company or product.

The problem is that when researchers get involved, big decisions have usually been made. Or perhaps there are competing ideas and the winner now has pressure to deliver very quickly. There’s a deep seated desire for genius. Someone to be one, an organisation to act with genius.

No upfront research = high risk.

By the time someone’s convinced that an idea should be built, there is a habit of using research to validate an idea and not question it.

Do you talk to people who don’t want to use your product, as well as people who already do, or want to?

We have given ourselves permission to launch things with very little evidence they are likely to work. Building the wrong thing is incredibly wasteful.

For years we had terrible processes, design problems would be magnified through waterfall projects. We moved to agile processes hoping to course-correct much sooner.

But now people are trying to make revenue from early iterations. To make money before the idea is even finished. Making something as good as it could possibly be is no longer seen as important.

Perhaps the problem is the internal wish for genius. Ultimately everyone secretly wants to be Steve Jobs.

How did we get here?

Clip from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, just before being hanged:

There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said no. But somehow we missed it.
Well we’ll know better next time.

(Excerpt from an interview with Ezra Klein and Jaron Lanier)

Lanier points out that we made a choice to do everything free but within the context of capitalism. Going right back to the 80s and the free software movement, there was a lot of idealism and no room for dissention. People simultaneously wanted things to be free but idealised tech entrepeneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. So because people wanted everything to be free, but still make money, the only business model left was advertising. But then at scale advertising becomes behavioural control.

(Tristan Harris quote)

Talking about monetising user attention and Apple execs feel they would never be in Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes.

(Excerpt from an interview with Ezra Klein and Mark Zuckerberg)

Zuckerberg: You know, I find that argument, that if you’re not paying that somehow we can’t care about you, to be extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth. The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay. … But if you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something that people can afford. I thought Jeff Bezos had an excellent saying on this in one of his Kindle launches a number of years back. He said, “There are companies that work hard to charge you more, and there are companies that work hard to charge you less.” And at Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use.

Now we’re going all the way back to the Edwardian period. The early days of electricity, when wires weren’t even covered yet and one touch would kill you. People hadn’t worked out how to make

Excerpt: “Hidden Killers in Edwardian Home” Dr Suzannah Lipscomb – people were running multiple devices off single electric circuits, which would overload them and cause fires.

How do we kill the genius? How do we get away from launching things that don’t work and haven’t been tested? Build evidence. Get research involved earlier in the process.

slide: the classic double diamond of design

We tend to start in the second half of the second diamond, assuming we got the first three right. Agile goes directly to building things, build and test early. But once you build something you generally become attached to that idea. Even when we know we shouldn’t.

Begin with intentional evidence.

Don’t try to be persuasive, let your users do the talking. – Nathan Waterhouse

At Mailchimp they had a notion of collecting evidence as well as building empathy. They also wanted to be where the action was, so they’d regularly talk to people in the C-suite; asking “what’s on your mind right now?”. It helped direct the research to the right places, early enough to have an impact.

Design research often has to be the bearer of bad news. It helps to reframe to “the original idea won’t work, but this might”. Test the boundaries of an idea, of a product, and what people are willing to do with it. Our behaviours constantly change because our barometers.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the business. Make sure you can speak the language and build credibility, so you can keep getting access to the people who make decisions.

Scale and operationalise research – you need to be efficient to be effective. Look at #ResearchOps as it emerges.

Talk about research a lot, talk about “gathering evidence”. Communicate the long term outcomes, the bigger plan around doing research and talking to users.

Be mindful of your target. Who calls the shots? Who do you need to convince? How do you need to convince them? Talk to them in their own language, mindful of the evidence you can bring.


[Aside: this is one of those talks that is quite hard to capture as the use of media adds a lot of atmosphere that is lost in the notes. Well worth watching this back.]