Design Thinking: How to Optimise the Research Phases and Avoid Common Pitfalls


Design thinking is increasingly used by innovative health, beauty, food and drink brands to step change their product and proposition development. It is a great process but like anything, this is not to say it doesn’t have its challenges.

By gaining a deep understanding of consumer needs and testing new ideas before committing to further development and launch activities, the Design Thinking method reduces many risks and pitfalls associated with product development. At its heart, the Design Thinking philosophy is just understanding consumers better (a human-centric approach) and designing focused solutions that improve their lives. The goal of this is demand-led innovation – delivering solutions tailored to exact customer needs.

How Does Design Thinking Work?

In the Design Thinking method, empathising with consumers through speaking directly to them is always the first step in the process. From this insight, we are able to define the problem of the issues and frustrations customers have that are not currently being served – their ‘pain points’. Once the problem has been defined, we can ideate to find a solution, build prototypes and repeatedly test these with consumers in an ‘agile’ loop.

Often this takes us back to the start of the process, either bringing up new problems or allowing us to reframe them and then go on to refine the solutions again. The main thing to keep in mind is this is a deliberately iterative process. Each time we go back around the cycle we are sharpening, tailoring and improving our ideas and ultimately maximising their chance of success. It is important not to short cut this process – it can be condensed and hothoused to speed it up, but it can’t be rushed.

research design meeting

What Are The Benefits?

  • Taking the time to listen to consumers always pays off. A solution that is driven by genuine demand is always going to be more successful than trying to push something that no one asked for.
  • The very act of spending time with consumers, understanding their views, pain points and motivations is humbling and this makes for better decision making where data is scarce and decisions need to be made by gut instinct.
  • By being responsive and realising it can be good to go back a couple of stages in the process, this encourages flexibility and a lower likelihood of being wedded to a bad idea. This flexibility of thinking and an appreciation that progress is not always linear is a great asset when developing products and propositions in categories as diverse as skincare, drinks, snacks or haircare.
  • The method encourages collaboration – a junior team member should have just as much right to be heard as a more senior member. Recognising the value different perspectives can bring is key and encouraging all participants in the team to ‘own their voice’ is empowering and motivating as well as something that directly leads to better decisions.
  • The focus here is on moving quickly and efficiently. An agile approach is so important in competitive markets where you don’t want to be the one left saying ‘oh they got there before us’.

What Are The Issues Associated?

With a focus on agile innovation targeted directly at consumers, it is easy to see why this method of working has become so widespread. However, one of the pitfalls of this technique lies in this first stage and that is in not conducting the research stage properly.

With inexperienced team members sometimes conducting the research and consumer samples often not given enough thought and attention, this can lead to a substandard research process. Not only is poor market research a waste of time, effort and money, it can also lead to false assumptions and ultimately poor decision making. In essence doing far more damage than good.

Therefore, to really get the most out of this stage and lay the foundations for an effective process, it is important to think through the components of a good research design, whether it be a food, drink or beauty proposition. This needs to start with first understanding consumer needs and frustrations, then developing solutions to these problems and finally testing these solutions.

Here are a few key points to remember:

  1. Don’t Rush the Sample

This is one area that can’t be compromised as it is so fundamental to getting the right answers. You need to make sure you are actually speaking to your target customers or potential customers – you need the right mix of age gender, social class and usage. Speaking to heavy versus light users will give very different responses.

Get this foundation right otherwise the whole process (to put in bluntly) is largely a waste of time.

woman holding paint brushes

  1. Stop When You’re Hearing Nothing New

The size of the research sample is important – are you trying to explore or quantify and measure? When designing a research process, it is common to try to put a defined target on the number of customers to speak to. Of course, setting a sample size feels comforting and that you are ‘in control’ of the process, but it might be better to allow for flexibility here and have a ‘stack’ of target respondents that you gradually draw down on as the insights emerge and the hypothesis evolves.

It can be difficult to estimate how many people you actually need to speak to before starting. The general rule for the shaping stage at least is; if you keep hearing the same thing from respondents, it’s likely you’ve simply heard enough. Don’t just keep going for the sake of it.

  1. Be Flexible

While a scientific method requires asking respondents the same questions in order to be able to compare answers between groups, sometimes a more iterative method is required. For example in interviews and focus groups, this means not sticking strictly to a discussion guide but following interesting points when they arise. Allow yourself and your research advisers to go ‘off piste’ a little as this is where some of the most interesting insights can be found.

Between interviews, pay attention to which areas haven’t been covered and set about the next interview with this in mind. Evolve, adapt and get comfortable with these on-the-fly changes.

As well as using traditional methods, there are some methods to consider that suit a more agile approach. One example is Online Communities where new questions and tasks can be given to consumers each day. This research tool is very popular with food, drink and beauty clients as it is a ‘Swiss army knife’ of a methodology and can include tastings, in home usage with video and photo elements, interviews, polls/surveys and focus groups. We love this method for its versatility and the depth of insight that it reveals.yoga at sundown

  1. Immerse Yourself

In big teams especially, new developments can be stalled by a variety of factors. Whether that be due to an outdated internal process or team members dragging their feet as they lack passion about the concept. By immersing team members in the process and ensuring they feel they are genuinely contributing in a fast-paced environment, this can help accelerate the process.

Even bearing these tips in mind, it can be difficult to find the right balance between finding an agile approach and a reliable one. It can also be a challenge to not become overwhelmed by the sheer flexibility of the process.

Using an agency familiar with the design thinking approach to help guide you through the process the first few times you run it can be invaluable. At HRA Global, we specialise in this approach and can provide valuable guidance and input at each step of the way to make sure you’re on the right track. If you’d like to discuss this further, do get in touch with Kim, Hamish or Poppy via [email protected].

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