There are a numerous additional "soft" benefits to conducting design research, that are often overlooked. As we continue to explore how design research works, and how it might relate to the ongoing public discussion of "design imperialism," I'd like to begin by listing these soft—yet very important—benefits. Here they are:
Design research sets a more appropriate tone for the relationship between the organization commissioning it and its existing or future customers. Ever walked into a group discussion where the gulf between their assumptions and yours was so large that you felt like you were in a different world? In multinational organizations, where there is both a cultural and physical gulf, this happens all the time, and it is acute in organizations that for the first time want to address markets of very low income consumers.
The process generates rich, storied material that is excellent at raising awareness across an organization of the broader opportunity space. A well run project will engage people in the topic well beyond the scope of the project.
It builds a more tightly knit team. A highly immersive approach puts the design team in situations where they learn more about one another, motivations, family life, each other's cultural perspectives. The impact of this is especially effective when team members are arriving from very different cultural landscapes.
Hiring a local team lays the groundwork for a meaningful, extended network of practitioners that can be drawn on later. Every study I've done over the past decade has led to a rich network of fixers, guides and practitioners that can be tapped on future studies—some of whom I've worked with for a number of years.
While everyone likes to focus on the tangible outcomes—things that were made as a result of the research, design research is also good at helping organizations understand the folly of going in a particular direction at the expense of others. The opportunity cost of bringing product A to market is that products B, C and D are less likely to get a look in.
In 2005, while at Nokia, I was asked whether the company should design a mobile phone for illiterate consumers—many illiterate people were already buying Nokia's products that were designed for people who could read and write—and the current experience was recognized as being suboptimal. After a few rounds of design research, my answer was that it was better to sell another half a billion phones of the models that were already being sold to literate consumers (with a few subtle but important user interface tweaks) than to develop something fully optimized but new.
There are many reasons why a dedicated product for illiterate consumers was not appropriate at that time: the social stigma associated with buying a device that was seen as being for "disadvantaged" consumers would be a disincentive to purchase—they wanted a device like "everyone else" because they aspired to be treated like "everyone else;" the cost of a new device, versus the economies of scale of selling a few hundred million more of those that were already on the market; the challenge of designing something that made a genuine difference to illiterate consumers is non-trivial. I like to think of illiterate consumers as "just like the rest of us, only more so." There is also what I refer to as proximate literacy—that it is better for illiterate consumers to be able to turn to their neighbor and ask them for help because they own the same or similar device, than to struggle with a new interface that needs to be learned. And there are many types of illiteracy. The classic definition refers to textual illiteracy, but it might be technical, mobile, financial, numerical—all of which impact use.
Whilst the outcome sticks in the craw of the purists and ideologues—a notionally sub-optimal device is better than a "good enough" one that is engineered/designed better but misses the bigger picture. An obvious example? I'm writing this on a suboptimal QWERTY keyboard, but do benefit from the standardization of suboptimal QWERTY keyboards on many of the laptops I come in contact with. My recommendation back then, when I was at Nokia, was that a dedicated device for illiterate consumers was the suboptimal choice.
It's worth pointing out that my answer today would be different for a number of reasons. Many of these illiterate consumers are now on their 3rd, 4th or 5th phone; connectivity is both more reliable and faster—which makes the learning experience easier. The cost of devices is significantly lower. And because touch screen technology—which Huawei and Nokia are increasingly putting into the hands of lower income consumers in emerging markets enables far more direct manipulation. That makes more complex tasks easier for an illiterate person to accomplish. (My research on designing for illiteracy is a few years old but the fundamentals are still sound—you can read it here.)
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You might think that conducting research in a country halfway around the world, in languages and dialects that the core team doesn't speak, would present the biggest challenge. Or that pulling a project together at a week's notice, gathering sufficiently meaningful data in the few days the team is on the ground, struggling with trying to have a life outside work when you spend half the time on the road/in the skies/on hi-alt mountain trails are the biggest tests a design researcher faces. But the real challenge is setting the right tone for the relationship between the team that is going in, and the people they are going to be interacting with.
There are four things that I've found consistently set the "right" tone for the research:
Stay and spend local
Build a trusted local team
Recruit through extended networks, rather than go through a recruiting agency
Provide participants with sufficient control of the research process.
I could write a chapter on each of these (in fact I have, to be published in due course) but I'll give a quick example on the last point. Beyond getting the normal data-consent we encourage in-depth participants to review and delete any or all the data we have on them before we leave. Also, we offer them a copy of their data—at least in a manner that is practical for them to consume—it could be anything from a printed photo through to a copy of every digital file. I understand why someone reading this would get angsty about privacy issues (it is a topic that has consumed a lot of my energy over the years), but I consider our teams to be working toward finding workable solutions that meet our legal responsibilities as well as our moral sense of doing the right thing—they are more informed than most.
This does of course assume that the research is "done right," when in many instances it isn't. There are teams that take a "let's see what we can get away with" approach. Some are overly motivated by money and not more experiential aspects of the project goals. Others don't recognize that they are experiencing culture shock. Some teams subcontract out the most important relationships and those are then primarily based on financial reward. And there are instances when the team hired in to do the job doesn't have the necessary experience. After a decade of doing this research I continue to learn—but it still surprises me the rudimentary mistakes that people make.
Aside from my employer, frog, there are a number of companies that operate in the design and innovation space—IDEO is probably the most well known and is a strong competitor on certain projects, Continuum has just opened a studio in Shanghai (welcome, hope you are enjoying the weather), and Method has recently been bought and are seeking to extend their offering to encompass more design-and-build engagements. Also, many ad agencies and suit-and-tie consultancies are trying their hand with varying degrees of success. And of course there are many, many more regional and local players. Local agencies/studios in countries such as India and China are evolving and are becoming stronger (even if their websites sometimes seem to cut-and-paste the offerings from the international players), but are still a long way away from adequately and consistently serving multinational clients—staff turnover is a bitch in high-growth economies and talent tends to gravitate to the better paid, and less frenetic multi-nationals. Of course this is not the whole picture, and yes there are some stunning local agencies out there—but for now I'll stick with the thread of working with multi-national clients on complex multi-national projects.
Can local design companies come up with ideas that are more relevant to their locale? All things being equal, their nuanced understanding of the local market should give them the edge. But all things are not equal. In the global marketplace it is rare for a single product to be designed for that one country—it needs to work across territories, and the agency needs a understanding of the big picture: the client's corporate strategy, the culture of the decision makers, how innovations are brought to market and the multiple other cogs in what is a massive machine. I've also seen time and again that bringing fresh-eyes to a market helps reveal things that natives have long since taken for granted.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that the label of "design imperialism" doesn't fit if the solutions are proposed by a local design agency. There are multi-nationals that are looking for combination of local insights and opportunities that leverage these insights and help in building these out. Why would a multi-national corporation agree to pay a premium to a global (or regional non-local) design consultancy when a local company can do the "same" job for less? Because in most cases it's a long way from being the same. The premium comes from offering something unique, such as deep experience in analogous industries and a breadth of offering—from research to design to build to support. It also comes from the fact that multi-nationals are tapped into what is happening globally in this space. They also have a track-record of delivering. The smart non-local agency doesn't pitch for work where there is a strong local player that could do the same (most likely more narrowly-defined) project for considerably less—and takes a medium to long term view of the agency-client relationship rather than short-term gain. And yes, sometimes they pitch and are beaten by local agencies who are simply more focused and better at that particular niche. The challenge is that there are few products and services that are truly designed for a single market (basic localization aside).
I'll end this installment with this idea. In the next post, I'd like to discuss the real design imperialism. Stay tuned.