Grounded in reality - the true value of Human-Centred Research | PDD

Grounded in reality – the true value of Human-Centred Research

By Hollie

on October 21 2021

When was the last time you pulled when it said ‘push’?

Every day, we are surrounded by products and services that somehow, don’t work as we expect them to. Whether it is an ‘impossible-to-follow’ set of instructions or the ‘push’ sign on a handle that clearly invites you to pull, people are constantly forced to develop workarounds to compensate for poor design.

The practice of Human-Centred Design (HCD) was born to tackle those issues and is now widely recognised as a tool to create products and experiences that work for users and are therefore commercially successful.

However, despite the wealth of knowledge we have today around HCD, trying to understand what people really need remains a challenge, particularly when you are exploring something that did not exist before.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

The idea of asking people what they want is not new. Since the 1950s, advertisers and brands have invested millions on market research with a view to understand which products or services might work best for consumers.

But although market research techniques can help us explore a defined market segment or identify who might use a new product of service, it rarely delivers when evaluating innovation.

Asking people for their opinion about something they use on a daily basis doesn’t often turn into insightful outcomes. Asking them about something they have never seen or experienced in real life presents even bigger limitations.

Doctor going through results and medication on tablet with senior patient

When you ask someone what they need or how a product or service can be improved, they might talk about micro-changes – something small that they want, or that they think they want. Often, people find it difficult to express what they truly need, either because they cannot imagine doing anything differently from the current ‘norm’, or they accept a product’s flaw as something they have to live with. Through no fault of their own, most people lack the technical knowledge, insight and foresight needed to think up revolutionary concepts and better product solutions.

Therefore, we need to go beyond questions and observe and explore how people interact with the product or experience in a real-world setting. We need to look at not only how people use that product or service, but also their surrounding environment and how the product might fit into their lives. Only then will we be able to see what has not been said, get under the skin of users and identify their true needs and desires.

Human-Centred Design, or Design Research, opens levels of empathy to help us understand how people might interact with what doesn’t yet exist. Instead of surveys or focus groups, we use observations, ethnography, cultural safaris and a range of other tools to assemble a detailed, human-centred picture of the user. Rather than relying solely on what people say, we use the tools of anthropology, psychology and sociology in order to understand why people behave in the way that they do. This enables us to get to the bottom of their unmet needs, define challenges to solve, and establish paths for improvement.

Importantly, whereas market research might tell us about the what, Design Research focuses on the why. Our findings are therefore not just data, or anonymised statistics, but true insights into who the users really are, what they do and why they do it. It is in this why that the opportunities for innovation lie.

Photo of design team with sketches

Are we losing focus?

Since its adoption in the 1970s, HCD has become ubiquitous in design. Even those unfamiliar with HCD methodologies understand the importance of developing products and services that respond to the needs of users and consumers.

However, as HCD becomes widely adopted, we run the risk of diluting its impact. All-too-often, the research becomes a tick-box exercise – something that must be done as part of the development process but only to a certain extent or for a limited period of time, and that can be conducted without specialist expertise. This can have a negative influence on the outcomes. By applying tools inconsistently, without due process or a full understanding of methodologies, you risk missing important insights and can fail to identify internal and external biases. At best, a half-hearted approach might translate into a missed step-change market opportunity; at worst, you risk investing in a product or service that your target audience will not want, or use.

Set up for success

As well as having a clear process in place, the success of Human Centred Design relies heavily on the tools you use, or don’t use. It is a highly-nuanced task where emotional and cognitive ergonomics are important.

For example, when conducting healthcare research, you might end up talking to someone in harrowing, highly emotional circumstances – those with a condition, or who are caring for someone with a condition that has a significant impact on their lives. In those instances, you need to have a thorough understanding of how best to listen and empathise, whilst still guiding the research to ensure that goals are met and useful information uncovered to inform the design going forward.

Alternatively, you might be speaking with someone whose condition has resulted in a significant physical or cognitive impairment. In these circumstances, you need to choose the right tools to meet the research aims, but also to make sure that the methodologies do not influence or bias the outcomes. Just as in physics, the ‘Observer Effect’ – the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation – is something we must consider and minimise as much as possible in Design Research.

Flexibility is also key, particularly in early-stage research. Being too prescriptive in the methodologies you use and the direction of the dialogue, runs the risk of missing crucial information, and results in a narrow or segmented picture of potential opportunities. Whilst it is important to have overarching aims for the research, following a flexible approach allows for greater spontaneity and the potential to adapt the interaction between the facilitator and respondent. In those circumstances, whilst the dialogue is guided by a pre-defined script, it allows the facilitator to pick up on interesting threads of information or observations that arise naturally throughout the research session.

In research, selecting the right tools is important; but selecting the correct respondents is also key to guarantee the collation of holistic findings. In that sense, a major component of successful research activities is the identification of stakeholders; those with a direct interest in the product, system or service you are going to develop. For example, when working with a world leading food and drink brand to learn what healthy growth meant for families, we had to acknowledge the needs of both kids and parents and explore the dynamics that might influence purchasing decisions. By broadening the stakeholder engagement, we were able to get to deeper, more valuable insights on people’s behaviours and motivations.

Look back to move forward

As the leader of the Human Sciences team at PDD, my background is in design and engineering. This is not uncommon – our entire human sciences team is a cross-section of talent with designers, psychologists, ergonomists and more.

This diverse expertise gives us a clear view of what’s coming down the line in the development process.  As a team, we understand people and their needs, but also the many challenges innovators face when turning ideas into reality – from the limitations of a manufacturing process to nuances of building digital interactions. At PDD, we tailor our research to produce the best results. We ensure the outcomes are always actionable, with insights that our clients can use to drive real-world innovation.

What’s more, as we move forward with the development process, we continue to look back. We go over the data to see how things fit together, identify where users are struggling and frame the most appropriate opportunity areas. And we never lose sight of the users to ensure that the products and services we create can deliver the market impact we were aiming for.

Grounded in Reality

In innovation, one of the most significant challenges is delivery. After all, turning ideas and concepts into products and experiences that succeed in the real world is not easy.

You need to have a clear process in place, but also a multidisciplinary team that can confidently drive ideas forward in a holistic manner, without individual biases. You must also keep an open mind.

At PDD, when following our research and the framing of opportunity areas we embark onto ideation we do so wholeheartedly. We embrace all ideas, no matter how far-fetched. In our experience, even concepts that might not immediately seem feasible might end up informing new elements or become part of a future product pipeline.

As we move forward with the development process however, we start filtering down ideas in line with commercial and business objectives. This is not a linear process but rather, a cyclical one – with researchers, technologists and designers working in close collaboration throughout to ensure our solutions respond to user needs but also that they are viable, technically feasible and grounded in reality.

Building confidence at a time of change

In a world where people have increasingly high expectations of what a product and service should do for them, being rigorous and having a clear understanding of people’s needs and aspirations is more important than ever.

Innovation can be a risky business and requires significant investment, both in terms of time and money. Only by developing experiences that truly address people’s needs, can organisations gain a competitive advantage, get better return on their investment and stand out as drivers for change in their industry and beyond.

Crucially, any piece of research should always deliver real-world value. How is that research enabling new opportunities? How can we act on the results? How will our work benefit our customers, our organisations, and our societies?

As innovators, we must never stop asking these all-important questions. Ultimately, research is there to give us and our clients confidence – the confidence that comes with knowing that a new product or experience has a meaningful impact in people’s lives and the reassurance we get from knowing that it can deliver market success.