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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.

Vassilios Kanellopoulos, Business Development Director talks to New Design magazine about PDD enjoying another successful year creating innovative products, services and experiences for clients the world over.

In the article Vassilios reveals how PDD’s growth in its three predominant sectors – medical, consumer, and industrial – combine to deliver a creatively successful and profitable year.

“Our strength is in understanding the framing of conception and development,” reflects Vassilios. “Insight and creativity have always been in the PDD DNA and will continue to be so.”

To read the full article click here.

Vassilios Kanellopoulos
t. +44 (0)20 8735 1111

Consumer, market and design insights sit at the very heart of design and strategy, but how can you get the best out of these vital nuggets of information? How do you make them inviting and accessible for people to digest, liberating them from the depths of the server and to the heights of engagement?

While a lot of emphasis is placed on the set up of research, conducting good research and of course analysing and translating it; here at PDD we focus on communication as well as content, from snappy PowerPoints to short movies. We took some time out recently to explore alternative methods of communicating research insights, with the aim of creating a new tool that would both inform and inspire through a more immersive experience.

Above image credit: PDD Interactive Trends Map
Featured image credit: Intersection Consulting sourced from Flickr Creative Coms

Click here to see how our researchers and designers have translated their ideas and explorations into an Interactive Trends Map. For this Beta version we used the industry sector of ‘beauty’ to help illustrate our new communication tool.

Explore our Beauty Trends Map to see how culture impacts approaches to beauty around the world. From ‘Nip-tuck norm’ in Latin America to Western cosmetics brands tapping into the lucrative China market; you can discover some of the major happenings in the world of beauty and personal care through a series of regional insights, micro trends, global influences and product examples.

Creating this got us thinking about the key points for ‘information liberation’; we have compiled a list of the top 5 take outs for stripping back, layering up and engaging your audience from busy executives to information hungry designers…

  1. Distil, distil, distil – if you think it’s too much information, it probably is! Get to the essence of the insight and avoid wrapping it up in over-elaborate narratives.
  2. Avoid layout repetition – strike a balance between consistency and variation, create points of interaction for a more immersive experience.
  3. Layer information – think of the different audiences and their needs. From top level overviews for time starved executives, to content rich and inspiring information for designers and development teams.
  4. Make it visual – use images, product examples and info graphics to illustrate data and insights, a welcome break from text heavy information.
  5. Make it a tool – rather than just an information download. Consider how your audience will use it, workshop with it, extract content for their own presentations.

If you would like to know more about our Interactive Trends Map, or other capabilities at PDD please get in touch with us at:

t: +44 (0)20 8735 1111

A global medical device company recently approached PDD with a request to identify product innovation opportunities*. Our human-centred approach for such projects typically involves full immersion in the environment of the user and this project was no different. In this post, I will share some of my experiences of working in the hospital environment, the techniques used, and just generally what I enjoyed from my time in the field.

*(Note: to protect the identity of the client, the clinical space and product are kept purposely vague in this post).

In my role at PDD, I get involved in a lot of medical projects, mainly because of my experience in designing a variety of medical devices, but also because I am simply passionate about improving healthcare and medical products. In partnership with the client company, we designed a research protocol that would take me to hospitals across Europe and the United States. This was great because it allowed me to work in a variety of languages I am fluent in and thus better connect with users and stakeholders. Interestingly, I didn’t expect that my expertise on the British Royal family and in particular “The Baby” would be tested so many times, but I’ll get back to that later.

While I am an engineer by training, I have always enjoyed and relished project phases in which I can immerse myself in a user’s environment. This project gave me extended exposure to the user and the product: I spent weeks in hospitals, talking to doctors, nurses, technicians and administrative staff, as well as observing procedures, and it really allowed me to get a better feeling for how this particular product is used and what drives this particular class of doctors. I can definitely say that there are some similarities across medical specialities in the hospital and many of them due to the particularities of the hospital as a working environment. However, each clinical speciality also has its own culture: personalities of orthopaedic surgeons and neurosurgeons, for example, are typically quite different! Of course, each product will also have specific features that lead to different use patterns, and there is no better way to identify these patterns than by spending time with the user and seeing them in action.

Image credit: PDD, Featured image credit: Phalinn via Flickr
That’s me, scrubbed up and looking serious.

Image credit: PDD
No shortage of coffee in this nurses’ common room – note the scale of the box to the jam jar!

As I mentioned previously, communication with stakeholders is a key component of opportunity discovery programmes. While some insights can be gained from observation alone, conversations – formal, or actually more frequently, informal, while grabbing a coffee or a sandwich – are an important means for identifying opportunities. I am French-German but also speak English and Spanish, so this project was a perfect fit: With research sites in France, Germany, Spain and the US, I was able to ask questions in the local language and thus had access to all staff, not just the anglophiles. Speaking the local language, unsurprisingly, really helped to put interviewees at ease, and it actually led to a lot of softer insights relating to the product and its packaging, as well as the touch points with the client company’s sales and customer support team.

In preparing for the research, our team had identified all the key stakeholders in the hospital that are relevant for this product and procedure. We also reached out to key opinion leaders for insights and opinions on current trends in the field (key opinion leaders, or KOLs, are high visibility doctors who tend to influence clinical practice and are respected in the clinical community). To guide interviews, we put together questions that we felt may be particularly relevant to potential areas of opportunity. Of course, before having done the research, this can only be a best guess, and questions and focus areas for the research were refined as we learned more about the product and its use.

Image credit: Johns Hopkins Hospital

The stunning exterior of the recently completed Sheikh Zayed Tower at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, one of our research sites.

As long as participants agreed to it, we used as much photography and video as possible. This is really useful for two reasons: 1) it allows for revisiting a moment that seemed interesting (maybe in order to focus on a member of staff’s body posture, or hand movement, if ergonomics are an area for innovation), and 2) it is a great way to share an insight with the client company. It’s very satisfying to show a picture or video in which a user struggles with a certain aspect of the client’s product and see the faces of the client team change as they realise this is something that can be improved. Indeed, seeing problems as opportunities is the right frame of mind for such a research programme, as the findings provide the information needed to make informed decisions on future developments.

So what about the baby? Quite possibly I was the last one to find this out, but Americans are seriously obsessed with the British Royal family. As a result, in literally every hospital that I visited, staff would ask me about the happy event and were somewhat disappointed when I couldn’t impress with nuggets of knowledge I am privy to due to me being a resident of this island. Fortunately, our client didn’t care much about our qualifications in this domain. Rather, they wanted to know what we had found out, and after weeks spent immersed in the hospital, we could comfortably point them to a range of innovation opportunities that we had identified which will soon form the basis for a completely new development programme. Happy times!

To be more creative we need to take control of our attention but also relax, according to David Rock’s fascinating talk on “Your Brain at Work.” In it, Rock relates cognitive neuroscience research to real-world issues such as how to be more creative, and how to manage teams and people. In this 2-part series, I’ve summarised the key points and drawn some conclusions on the implications of his research on the (creative) design process and collaboration, in case you don’t have 55 minutes to  listen  to his talk on YouTube (but it’s worth it).

Part 2:  Control & relaxation

In Part 1 I discussed how the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the limbic system’s competition  for resources actually decreases our capacity for creativity. Part 2 provides an overview a few simple techniques to control attention, the importance of a quiet brain for creativity, and some top tips for getting the most from your brain.

Controlling attention

There are ways we can control our attention by shifting from the limbic system to the PFC. When we feel threatened by something, we can regain some control by labelling the threat- defining our experience in a few words. For example, you notice you are agitated during a meeting, you acknowledge the agitation, and ascribe your state to having too much coffee. Thus, your label would be, “agitated from too much coffee”. If you can say the label aloud it has an even stronger effect (more parts of the brain are recruited), but even thinking it still has a positive effect and lets you gain more control over your emotional state by shifting away from the limbic system to the PFC.

The second  method  for mastering emotional regulation is to reframe the situation and find something positive in it. For example, if you are stuck in traffic, rather than getting frustrated, you can reframe the situation as an opportunity to do something productive (read an article, call a friend).  A highly effective way of reframing is to see humour in the situation, or even just laugh.

By reframing the situation we defuse the threat response, releasing the emotional stranglehold of the limbic system and allowing the PFC to perform.

A relaxed brain is a creative brain

Finally, as important as the PFC is in creativity and solving insight problems, directing conscious attention to it is not the best way to use it, as it is a very limited resource. Firstly, conscious thought is a serial process that requires effort. Imagine adding 2+2 or 10+5 or even 20+30. Compare that to 253+ 738. In the first case, we’re using subconscious processes which are automatic. In the second, we have to marshal resources to  complete  the computation. Anything that requires effort is perceived as a threat. And, when we’re threatened, we’re not very good at being creative.

Secondly, the PFC can’t hold very much at any one time. If you think about the amount of  information  as a volume that can be measured, the PFC can hold about 1 cubic foot (at full capacity), compared to the rest of the brain which can hold the equivalent volume of the Milky Way.

Thirdly, research has also shown that most insight problems are not solved with the PFC-in 60% of problems, people cannot explain (rationally) how they solved them. The trick is to dampen down the rational, conscious thought process, and let the brain “go into idle”, or “focus on being unfocused” and let anything come into consciousness. A relaxed, quiet brain, is able to make connections between previously unrelated things, thus improving the chances of solving insight problems.

Interestingly, research has also demonstrated that you open your field of view when you’re happy and close it down when you’re anxious. Happy people make more connections in their brain between previously unrelated concepts, and consequently are significantly better at solving insight problems.

Top tips

1. Be aware of your emotional state. If you’re feeling threatened, re-label, reframe, or laugh!
2. To enable collaboration among people from different groups, ensure they feel part of the same in-group
3. Relax and let the brain make connections, don’t force a solution
4. Be happy, be creative


David Rock’s GoogleTech Talk, “Your Brain at Work”

David Rock’s website

Positive Mood Seems to Boost Creativity

How to Get to Genius

The Eureka Hunt: Why Do Good Ideas Come to Us When They Do?

Study Illuminates the ‘Pain’ of Social Rejection

To be more creative we need to take control of our attention but also relax, according to David Rock’s fascinating talk on “Your Brain at Work.” In it, Rock relates cognitive neuroscience research to real-world issues such as how to be more creative, and how to manage teams and people. In this 2-part series, I’ve summarised the key points and drawn some conclusions on the implications of his research on the (creative) design process and collaboration, in case you don’t have 55 minutes to  listen  to his talk on YouTube (but it’s worth it).

Main image from

Part 1: The link between attention and creativity

Attention is a limited resource

For the brain to function it needs energy (in the form of glucose) and it can only store and process a certain amount of glucose at any one time. When we direct attention to a certain area of the brain, or when a certain area demands our attention, glucose is sent there to keep it active. When glucose is directed to a particular part of the brain, the overall store of glucose depletes as does our ability to use other parts of the brain, as they don’t have as much energy. Even after that glucose-greedy part of the brain is no longer activated, there is a lag before the glucose store is built up again and can be directed to other parts of the brain.

The struggle for creative  resources

When it comes to creativity, one area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is key. The PFC is the area that lets us imagine, make decisions (by getting info from various parts of the brain, holding it on stage, and comparing it to other bits) and be creative (by getting information from various areas of the brain and combining them in new ways to create a novel thing). However, another part of the brain, the limbic system, trumps all other parts when it’s aroused. The limbic system is constantly looking out for threats and  rewards  and controls our emotional responses to situations.

The way the limbic system works is that BAD things (threats) get a lot more attention than GOOD things (rewards). The more the limbic system is aroused (by good or bad things), the less resource there is for the PFC, and the less ability we have to imagine, make decision, and generate creative solutions. In other words, when the limbic system is aroused, we are at the mercy of our emotions.

Social threats are scarier than physical ones

When we think of threats, we typically think of threats to our physical bodies, someone chasing us with a knife, the screeching of  tyres  on pavement, a spider in our wardrobe. However, research shows that social threats generate an equally strong but even longer-lasting threat response in the limbic system than threats of physical violence. The key social needs that can be threatened are status (one’s standing in the community they live in, whether they are better or worse compared to peers), certainty (one’s ability to predict how people will react, how events will unfold), autonomy (ability to have choices, make decisions), relatedness (perception of others as a friend or foe, in-group or out-group), and fairness.

An example of a status threat is when your manager says, “let me tell you what other people have been saying about you.” The limbic system fires up preparing for the threat that we will be compared (less favourably) with our coworkers.

An interesting thing to note when you’re structuring collaboration sessions, is that people will not collaborate well (be thoughtful and creative) with people they perceive to be in the out-group.

Up next, Part 2:  Control & relaxation

We don’t have to be ruled by our limbic system. By practicing a few simple techniques we can control how our brain deals with threats and shift attention to the areas we want to. Part 2 introduces a few simple control techniques, as well as some top tips for getting the most from your brain.


David Rock’s GoogleTech Talk, “Your Brain at Work”

David Rock’s website

Positive Mood Seems to Boost Creativity

How to Get to Genius

The Eureka Hunt: Why Do Good Ideas Come to Us When They Do?

Study Illuminates the ‘Pain’ of Social Rejection

The weathered old man approached me in one of the impossibly difficult to find grocery shops in Havana. Though he spoke no English, he communicated through body language and fierce pointing that he had a small, hungry baby at home and that I should buy him the outrageously priced powdered milk. Fortunately a friend had warned me of this “baby hungry needs milk” hustle. He said that the scammer, usually a woman, with babe in arms, approaches you and begs for the powdered milk. After you buy the milk, she sells it back to the store and keeps 80% of the proceeds, as the shop owner and scammer are in cahoots and price the milk artificially high. Interestingly, my friend had warned me about popularity of this scam in India. It seems to have crossed borders, and genders, and made it to small Caribbean island where many inhabitants depend on tourists for their livelihood.

I wonder whether the common scams in Cuba will likewise make their way to India?

In Cuba, the first hustler my travelling companion and I encountered intercepted us outside our pre-booked casa particular (bed and breakfast), explained that he was the owner’s son and had been sent to apologise that the casa was full, but that he was take us to another. He earned his keep as he carried our luggage through the hilly, hot cobbled streets of Trinidad de Cuba for half and hour (see photo) and we learned a lesson a few days later when we found out that he was not the son of the owner of the original casa, but a jinetero (literally, “jockey”, figuratively tout or hustler), hired to bring customers to other casa owners.

What would be great is a tool that tracks the origin and spread of such scams across the globe, like Rhiza Labs Flu Tracker.

And it could be combined with a  mobile  app that lets people contribute their own experiences, similar to the City of Boston’s Citizen’s Connect App  which lets people Geotag and report potholes, graffiti and other issues.

Anyone up to the challenge?


Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum on the world’s biggest tourist scams.

Top 10 tourist scams.

Search results of “travel scams” on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forums.

Lonely Planet, 10 common travel scams in Thailand.

India Mike’s site on scams and annoyances in India.

Rick Steve’s tourist scams in Europe.

Rick Steve’s tourist scams 2005.

Bangkok scams

The China Primer.