Explaining Design Research to your clients

Have you ever wanted more time to do proper design research, but couldn’t get your client to see it, too? Well, you’re not alone

I’m going to demonstrate how you can explain design research and its value in a way that clients understand, by focusing on just one key aspect.

A key element in designing services is, of course, design research. I see a lot of people struggling to explain it in a way that enables clients to actually understand the value of design research.

To explain design research, understand that “research” has a completely different connotation for designers.

Most people, including our clients, consider research as a way to get answers. As designers, we know that the nature of design research is not so much finding answers, but the right question that needs solving.

When you fail to explain design research and don’t get the time to actually do it, you end up with sub-par solutions that lead to disappointment in our clients. This means that the next time we ask for the budget to do design research, the chances are even slimmer that we get it. We need to break (or prevent) this negative spiral.

One of the ways I explain design research is by using a story from one of our projects, where we worked on finding ways to attract more tourists to the local museum here in the hometown of Utrecht (The Netherlands).

The notion was that the solution to getting more people through the museum doors would lie inside the museum—a better collection, a better coffee machine in the cafe, etc. We challenged that notion and did design research to figure out if that’s the real issue. After all, why not include all of the tourists who could go to the museum?

So, we went outside. We followed tourists as they both went into and left the museum, to see what else they were doing, and made a photo study. Along the way, we interviewed museum visitors and others to see what motivated them to go.

We found  that a museum visit for most people is just part of a bigger day out—they’re having a nice day and just tend to visit the museum.

For instance, we found that in Utrecht there are three major landmarks where most of the tourists come together, because it’s a place where you can take a scenic photo. One of our ideas was that, if you want more tourists in your museum, you should have a presence at these landmarks.

Instead of improving the coffee or collection (or maybe next to improving your coffee and collection), there were also some really interesting opportunities outside the museum doors. The only way we found this was by exploring these opportunities in the early stages of this project.

If we hadn’t gone outside and talked to tourists, we may never have realized that it might be as simple as putting up a sign at three places around the city. This experience became a great way to demonstrate the nature of design research and where it can lead.

When I explain the value of design research to my clients, I usually talk about design research as exploration.

That’s the very nature of design research. It’s about finding opportunities. It’s like assembling all your Lego bricks before you start creating your castle. The more bricks you have and the more diverse they are, the more interesting your solution might be, and the more opportunity directions you’ll find.

Design research is not about validation. It’s not about coming to conclusions. Design research is really about expanding the choices that you have as a designer.

So, why do we actually do design research?

For me, it’s about two things: figuring out if the challenge we’re working on is actually a problem worth solving, or if there something else more interesting and valuable to us. That’s one key reason why we do design research.

The other is to create opportunities to expand the choices we have. If we have to work with a small and limited set of Lego bricks, the solutions we come up with—the castles we build—will probably be pretty boring. The more Lego bricks we have in the beginning, the more interesting our solutions will be.

To summarize, design research is about exploration, not validation. It’s about creating choices and finding clues, not finding the “right” answer or coming to hard conclusions.

Now, the big question: why should your client care about investing in design research? Well, are they interested in finding out if the challenge they’re working on is actually the right challenge? Is it the challenge worth solving? Do they want to run the risk of finding solutions for the wrong problem, or do they want a sort of insurance through design research?

Additionally, the more choices you have, the more clues you have at the beginning and the more informed your eventual solutions will be.

So, again, more Lego bricks leads to more interesting solutions with design research. More opportunities, insights, and clues in the beginning lead to better and more informed decisions, and better and more informed solutions.

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