Asking questions and understanding needs;

Why designers needs researchers (and viceversa)

Have you ever worked with a client so centered on selling that he thinks his product will be loved by “everyone”?  

You ask questions about the target audience and they keep thinking it’s for everyone. You tweak the questions and ask to get examples of  what they would like the packaging to communicate and their response is “that’s why I am hiring you. You are the expert. Please design something that is well liked by everyone. Make it appealing” You feel stuck AND have to design for an “unknown persona”!

 As a designer you know that before you can ideate a solution, you need to understand the target you are solving for. However, there are a couple of things about design that most clients don’t know.

  1. Information gaps are not fertile grounds for design, they are fertile grounds for research.You are not asking questions to be “difficult” or appear “artsy”.
  2. Design is intentional, functional and iterative. It is future oriented. It begins by listening to clients or users, defining who you are (or the product), how you are different,  developing a strategy and executing it. Design is not aesthetics.  
  3. Good design tells a story about a problem (or pain), and ends with a solution or at least, an improvement.

Not investing the time or money into thoughtful design can do more harm than good. Poorly planned design can miscommunicate a company’s idea, alienate its core customers or say something too generic (like, “I am for everyone”) or that simply isn’t believable (like, “I am for everyone”).

Getting clients to invest in research is hard, especially when the client is giving you  little information on who you are designing for and why (remember your core customer CANNOT be everyone).  I have found that clients who are inexperienced with research tend to think quantitative research (numbers and data) is more important than qualitative (stories and insights).  Yet, qualitative research is fundamental for problem understanding and solution finding.

One exercise I have used with resistant clients to invest in qualitative research is to ask their significant others after a discussion, on a scale of 1 to 10, how angry/happy they felt.   After the question, ask them to assess how much they think they know about the problem that lead to the discussion. Usually, the answer is “not much”. Then I role play what kind of questions would have triggered a better understanding. 

These questions tend to be qualitative in nature and they help understand the details on how they felt and why and what can be done to problem solve. This little exercise has helped me get clients to understand the importance of stories, and of exploring the deeper meaning (insights) behind the numbers.

As a Design Researcher, I help clients innovate and problem solve through a human centric and collaborative approach to market research.  It’s called Human Centric Research. Most of my clients value the opportunities this kind of research presents, but not all clients do.

In my years as a Research provider and user, I have worked with graphic designers, communication experts, service designers, customer experience designers, brand managers, marketeers and CEO’s.  Designers have become my best allies because they use research to do a better job. I have come to especially respect forward-thinking designers who act upon insights and consumer pain points and not limit themselves to use research to seek validation to an already established idea (solution) in their mind.

These 5 tips will help you become such a designer.


Clients need to be open to new forms of gathering insights

Research is not about just numbers or about regurgitating a bunch of “verbatims” on what consumers said into a presentation. Research is about understanding, digging deeper into the challenge so that solutions can be thought out.  Research should provide clear insights and opportunities to take action.


Clients need to have clear objectives and articulate these clearly to the research company

Spend time with the client explaining what you need to understand, what the problem is, what has been done, what has worked and what has not and why you need user research done.  


Make sure the researcher understands the client’s objectives

Don’t expect to have a market research company gather the information you need if they are not clear on the problems you have, what information you need to solve it and why you need the information.


Design research to identify FUTURE needs not to understand past performance

oftentimes, research is designed to confirm what marketers already know. Design questions to scavenge a consumer’s mind with the intensity of an investigative journalist and unearth motivations … Framing the future has more to do with human insight than pompous research methodologies.


Recruitment is important

Getting the right participants/users can make a project fail or excel. A researcher feeds on what consumers say so recruiting from a panel of professional research participants will get you nowhere.  In fact, I have heard participants describe big retail pharmacy chains the same way they describe a local pharmacy. Why? Because they don’t have experience with the brand and were most likely recruited by cheap recruiters.

Executive Chef Peter Schintler from Marmalade restaurant in PR put it succinctly-

“Stop asking why good food is expensive and start understanding why junk food is so cheap”. 

The same concept applies when choosing a Market Research firm. Be wary of research that copy-pastes the same methodology over and over again, be wary about generic recommendations, or overly positive results, but most of all, be wary of cheap research.  We all have to manage our budget but the point of research is actionability and any research that leaves you scratching your head is money wasted down the drain. Find out more about us at Lateral Strategy

Alexandra is Founder of Lateral Strategy, a Puerto Rico based human centric research, branding, and strategy studio. She is also a Synecticsworld Community Partner and a Creative Education Foundation Board Member. 

Alexandra graduated Cornell University and pursued an MBA in Consumer Behavior from ESADE University in Barcelona.  She has worked in Consumer Research, Strategic Account Planning and Advertising for over 15 years where she spent most of her time questioning irregularities, challenging people, connecting the dots and synthesizing information to inspire Creativity and stimulate the kind of action that allows businesses to grow and innovate.  

Alexandra uses her creative multicultural background to bring the unconventional thinking, leadership and creativity that are always at the core of  innovation. As a Brand Strategist, her job is to analyze and dissect issues from every angle to unearth the barriers the strategy needs to solve. As a Researcher and Advertising Strategist, her job is to conceptualize all the brand and consumer knowledge and synthetize it in a way that inspires action.  All, while aligning and linking the consumer, the culture, and the brand seamlessly.

Alexandra is all about creativity with a purpose. She loves the mental process behind creative problem solving and Design Thinking. It gives her a chance to exercise both her analytical and creative brains, to touch base with her broad library or random facts and to connect disparate ideas into innovative solutions.  She is truly passionate and approaches every project with the desire to change the world.

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