Design Research

with Erika Hall

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How do you begin research for your idea?

Erika Hall

Co-Founder of Mule Design, Author, Research & Design Expert

Lessons Learned

As soon as you have an idea for a business, start researching.

Question #1: What evidence is out there that I might be wrong?

Any really successful, innovative product design is the product of many people working together.

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Lesson: Design Research with Erika Hall

Step: #2 Foundation: How do you begin research for your idea?

As soon as you have an idea for a business, you should start doing research. The first question you ask… You wake up, you've had this dream. This business idea came to you in a dream and you thought "Oh, this is going to be a huge business. I just thought of this problem everybody has and I can solve it and make money doing it."

The first question you ask is "Well, what would prevent me from doing that? What are all of the challenges or what evidence is out there that I might be wrong?" Just asking those questions of yourself, and that takes a lot of intellectual honesty.

This is why working in a team is so valuable because you talk about other people on the team keeping you honest and that, that is hugely important because you should invite anybody on your team to say "Oh, well, what about this and what about that," and come up with many hypothetical situations.

What happens if Facebook buys this company and competes with you? What happens if Apple wants to get in that business? What happens if the market changes in a certain way? That's the first step of research, is really interrogating yourself to make sure that, again, the assumptions that you're basing your business on conform to actual reality.

Just asking yourself "How do I know that this problem exists, that people aren't already solving it in a way that's perfectly, like, free and happy to them?" This is something we always talk about, really thinking about your competitors and who your competitors are.

Your biggest competitor is always nothing. Your customer taking no action and feeling perfectly content. If that's the case, then maybe you're trying to solve a made-up problem that nobody actually has.

So, you're first research is "What's my evidence that people actually have this problem to such a degree, and they think of it as a problem, that they'd be willing to expend some effort or expend some money that benefits me in order to solve that problem?" That's like step one of research and then everything flows from that.

If what you've made is already flawed or already not going in the right direction, then optimizing that, say like, "Oh, well, we're totally going in the wrong direction but we're testing that." There's no down side to starting earlier and I think what that is, that comes from that fear and ego and not wanting to be proven wrong.

There's a sense I think, in some cases, of using that sunk cost to your advantage. If there's something that you just really want to see built, and this can happen in a lot of more engineering driven companies. You get it out there and you test it. Once it's built, then it's much harder to say "Oh, you should have never built this thing in the first place" because now it's out there.

You're like "Well, now that it's there, I guess we should try to make it work", as opposed to starting before that and asking the question "Should we build this?" If the answer's no, you don't build it.

Maybe there was somebody who just really, really wanted to build it, this happens all the time. Nobody wants to admit this is how a lot of things get created. Somebody figured out that they could do it or they just wanted to do it or they wanted to see if they could do it, but it's just a solution in search of a problem.

I think when somebody objects to research because they say "Oh, let's just wait a little bit longer," what that means is let's continue down this path until, even if we find things out that totally contradict the direction we've taken, there'll already be something out there and so all the focus will be on optimizing what's out there as opposed to going in a completely different direction.

Our design work at Mule is research-based. It's always grounded in research. That comes from my early agency experience. The first agency I worked for had a very research and strategy driven methodology and so that's always been a part of how I work.

We find that some clients, I think because they don't have a clear sense of what's involved in that or because they work very differently, don't necessarily understand how to value research or understand how many options they have in terms of different kinds of research they could do.

They think about it as slow or academic and so those interactions were part of the impetus for writing the book. To put in the arguments that we make for always including a certain amount of research in our process.

In addition to that, being in the Bay area and in the start-up driven environment here, there's been a very strong drive to just go out there and try it and fail fast and fail quickly and learn from your mistakes like that and a devaluing of research.

All of this, these objections, these are objections that I address very specifically in my book, often come from a combination of misconceptions about how easy it is to start doing research and a certain amount of ego.

The people with the strongest objections often have those, not from a rational basis, but because they want to be the genius. They want to emulate the way that they think Steve Jobs made his design decisions "Oh, it comes springing forth from my mind" and it doesn't have any input from the real world.

People want to have the right idea that they thought up themselves. In reality, any really successful and delightful and innovative product design is the product of many, many people working together.

You have to embrace that, as well as thinking very carefully about what information you need to design something successfully.

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