Where Science Meets Muse

Intuitive Guiding of Iterative Design Research to Expedite Product Development

Posted by Plish on May 14, 2010

Wednesday,  at the final day of the Design Research Conference,  a panel discussion was held on the topic of design research and its role.  One panelist, Don Norman, was particularly animated about the need for design research to better serve industry by providing the results of the research in an expedited manner.  

While listening to Norman I found myself in total agreement with his assessments.  I also resisted the urge to jump up, wave my arms and say, “We’ve already done it!!!!”

What is ‘it’?

‘It’ is: Expediting design research to help industry develop products faster.   This technique may or may not work with non-product design but thinking about it, I’m not sure there’s a reason why it shouldn’t. 

So what is this process?  Here’s a diagram of the comparison between how design research is done in traditional programs and in expedited programs.

Click for Full Size

The typical Research and Development (R&D) process holds science in the highest esteem.   It consists of a research phase, usually  done over the course of  many weeks or months,  in which many situations and people  are observed and reams of data created.   This data is studied extensively resulting in insights, which leads to ideas and a plan of action to develop  business around the best of these.   This plan consists of prototyping, doubling back to the consumers at times and executing on manufacturing and distribution.   While some intuition undoubtedly comes in to play, the emphasis of a traditional program is on capturing data from  a broad enough population so that the resulting insights and conclusions lead to the development of products that meet or create needs in the researched market space. 

The expedited process is also science based but it makes more room for intuition and iteration.  The iterations occur because instead of visiting say, 30 locations as part of the study, perhaps only three are visited at first.  These three are picked based upon their likelihood of yielding more provocative insights.  The data from these sites are analyzed, insights found, ideas generated and extremely quick and dirty prototypes built and tested.  The results of this first round are then used to inform the next round of design research where 5 new sites are researched and the process repeated.

Iterating in this way results in fewer sites being observed overall (when compared to the traditional method),  but since refinement of the research process occurs with each iteration,  a knowledge base is built that supports the project.  In other words, the research process itself is prototyped along the way and the knowledge gained from this is folded back into the product development process.  If any gaps in knowledge become apparent the process is modified accordingly, on-the-fly. 

While this expedited technique is not as scientifically rigorous per se as the traditional method, it is usually good enough for product development.  This is because, as Norman pointed out,  design research shines in moving products along the S-Curve, and innovating meaning.   Since we’re not dealing with a plethora of unknowns on an S-curve, it doesn’t make sense to research everything as if it were new to the world.  The goal here is not to research and publish to add to communal design’s knowledge base.  The goal is to learn about something as quickly as possible and to get something to the market with less expenditures  before someone else does.   Breaking the research up in this way is one way to, as was mentioned at the conference, “… get 80% of the value of a full-blown ethnographic study for 60% of the cost, in about half the time.” (Quoting a client to Gerald Lombardi)

Are there any downsides? Of course.   I’ve put together a comparison table:

 From the viewpoint of the traditional process, the biggest negatives are the subjectivity and the fact that intuition and experience feed back into the process.   But in the framework of the expedited process, this is where the strength of the system lies.  An effectively researched and executed project is dependant upon the type of observers, their level of knowledge about the domain being researched, and their willingness to listen to their guts and play with prototypes as soon as insights start becoming apparent.   While one could say that this may skew objectivity in the research process, it actually informs the research process.   If team members keep open minds and keep discussions open, they should self-correct for any personal biases once the process starts and more data comes in.

But, what about the intuition?  Isn’t it too nebulous to be something that should be relied on?

I’ll let some brilliant minds of the past speak for me:

“The only real valuable thing is intuition.” – Albert Einstein

“Good design begins with honesty, asks tough questions, comes from collaboration and from trusting your intuition.” – Freeman Thomas, Automotive Designer (Porsche, Volkswagen, Daimler-Chrysler, Ford)

“Intuition becomes increasingly valuable in the new information society precisely because there is so much data.” – John Naisbitt, Futurist

“Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.”  – Jonas Salk,  Medical Researcher and Discoverer of Polio Vaccine

“It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.” – Jules H. Poincare, Mathematician & Physicist

“Often you have to relay on intuition.”  – Bill Gates

“What happens in practice is that by intuitive insight, or other inexplicable inspiration, the theorist decides that certain features seem to him more important than others and capable of explanation by certain hypotheses. Then basing his study on these hypotheses the attempt is made to deduce their consequences. The successful pioneer of theoretical science is he whose intuitions yield hypotheses on which satisfactory theories can be built, and conversely for the unsuccessful (as judged from a purely scientific standpoint).”  – Sir Fred Hoyle, Astronomer, with British astronomer, Raymond Arthur Lyttleton.

Intuition may be nebulous but it’s what moves an idea into reality.  Forcing intuition early and often in the process results in multiple learning streams (from users and from prototypes) which is ultimately what a company wants.  They want to learn and launch – ASAP.

When this is the goal, we need to use the best tools that will get us there.  Design research is a tool and as such it should be at the service of the project, at our service. That ultimately means that we should use our judgement, based on the circumstances, when to use it and whether or not to even use it in its original form.    There is no doubt that there are  circumstances when a more textbook type of ethnographic study should be done.    But when pressed for time, and project requirements aren’t conducive to doing full-blown, traditional, design research, doesn’t it make sense to use tools that shine in time constrained circumstances – the greatest tools designers have?  Doesn’t it make sense to leverage and use intuition, experience and passion?

5 Responses to “Intuitive Guiding of Iterative Design Research to Expedite Product Development”

  1. Yet another thought provoking blog. You keep springing surprises one after the other. Well done.

    The intuition part is fine but most people think of it as kind of ‘spooky’ and therefore is not accepted in the common process of doing things.

    But what happens when we club intuition with your other factors as stated — experience and passion?

    When we do that, i think what we get are a ‘sense of balance’ and a ‘sense of innate intelligence’.

    And i believe that these two vital senses would see us through every problem — quite quickly provided we celebrate ‘diversity’ and not ‘conformity’ as is usually done in R&D. And probably it becomes immediately acceptable to many.

    What do you think?

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Plishka. Michael Plishka said: Intuitive Guiding of Iterative Design Research to Expedite Product Development : http://wp.me/pkQcg-xe […]

  3. Don Norman said

    We do need much more rapid developmental processes, but I am afraid that i disagree on two counts. First, that we are able to do design research at the start of a project 9there is never enough time), and second that we should rely upon intuition (that gives the engineers free rein to do whatever they wish to do).

    I argued some time ago that research had to be done outside of the development cycle. Why doing user observations first is wrong

    Intuition is dangerous, but more importantly, there is no need. We now have sufficient, well-established principles of interaction design that intuition is not only unnecessary, but often a path that leads to disaster. We know how to do quick tests of new ideas within hours or a day. We have enough best practices to follow. And we have quite a science already developed.

    When it comes to developing products that millions of people will use, intuition is a really bad way to proceed. How many times do we have to beat back this idea? How many really bad interfaces must we experience? Want to see what intuition leads to? Look at the plethora of confusing applications now being released for the iPhone, Android, and iPad.

    So yes, your scheme of rapid assessment combined with iterative development is extremely clever, I do not think it will succeed because in today’s product world, it still feels as if it is slowing things down.

    Don Norman

  4. Plish said

    Don and Dibyendu,

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses!

    Doing research outside the development cycle would indeed be a good way to go. It makes sense that companies that are oriented to a certain market via their DNA have groups cut loose to do design research – it’s the parallel group to the technological research folks in the labs. Unfortunately the “do research at the beginning of a project” mentality is pretty heavily ingrained.

    Regarding intuition, Dibyendu articulates well what I was thinking. I love the phrases “Sense of balance’/’sense of innate intelligence’. There is a need for experience and passion to guide intuition or it can run amok. There is also definitely a need to overcome the spookiness factor as well. An acceptance of divergance from conformity is a prerequisite. A honed intuition, the ability to draw conclusions quickly, is a tool tailor-made to dealing with high speed situations. If it were not, humans would have been consumed by predators many years ago.

    Having said that, I don’t think that the plethora of lousy devices and interfaces are necessarily so much a matter of intuition gone wrong as much as being the result of a combination of guessing and outright ignorant design.

    On another note, I have used this technique in limited fashion in the context of medical device development. It has worked. Did we dodge the proverbial bullet? Perhaps. Did we execute in record time? Yes. But to Don’s point, was it still considered too slow for the powers that be? Perhaps, but then taking breaks for the bathroom is considered slowing things down in some companies.

    Thanks again for contributing to the discussion!!

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