As a qual agency that specialises in design research, it was with great interest that we read Andy Knowles’ article, “Are we over-researching design?” (Research World, Feb 2010, and also available on their blog).
We thank Andy for bringing these issues to the fore, although we would argue that many of the points raised are far from new. Sadly, in our experience, it is commonplace for research agencies to approach design research in much the same vein as they would any other type of research, with predictable failings. As the article highlights, consumers’ relationship with design is a complex beast, quite different from any other field, and therefore demands a bespoke approach.
We fear that Andy’s assertion that research has a habit of making design “safer, not better” is a symptom of seeing too much poorly executed evaluative research. That is: research brought in at the last moment, as judge and jury, long after major decisions about the design approach have been made, an approach which inevitably results in many research debriefs that are seen to put the brakes on the creative process, rather than inspiring it.
This application of research fails to take account of the broader context which dictates consumers’ complicated relationship with design. This is why, as an agency, we emphasise the importance of getting research in early and conducting exploratory and pre-design stage research in order to steer the creative process with the benefit of insight. By steering design in the right direction from the off, dispiriting criticism at an evaluative stage can often be avoided.
Moreover, we share Andy’s disappointment in the application of research techniques which, whilst they may be successful in other areas, are inappropriate for design research. That is why we conduct research by viewing designs within their competitive context, and capitalising on our opportunity for a fresh, real response at the start of groups (rather than throwing it away by revealing our interest in design, or a specific brand).
Where we don’t agree, however, is with Andy’s perspective on the importance of identification over communication. While it certainly is important for consumers to notice and identify packs on shelf, if their communication fails to engage then the pack falls at the final hurdle. Understanding the paradox of choice and the psychology behind consumer decision-making has led us to believe that on-shelf shout will not always get you considered in the right way. This is why we have developed our own Impact Model, which goes beyond mere on-shelf impact to break down how a pack works at the ‘Shout’ (standout, recognition, identification), ‘Show Stop’ (uniqueness, differentiation, code-breaking) and ‘Seduce’ (connectivity, desirability) levels.
It is our view that well considered, sensitive research can make a creative idea much more relevant and compelling. As an agency, we have worked with JKR on many occasions and have a great admiration for their work in the championing of considered, strategic design; we consider that the twin disciplines of design research and design creation need to work much more closely together if the poor practice in this sector is to be remedied. While necessarily the change needs to come from researchers, it is by working more closely with designers that the research industry will begin to understand how research can best be conducted in the complex world of design.