Design Research

with Erika Hall

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Do you know the questions you need to answer?

Erika Hall

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

Lessons Learned

The first step of any research process is articulating the questions you want to answer.

Knowing what you do not know and where you are making assumptions are key here.

The first step of any research process is articulating the questions you want to answer.

Knowing what you do not know and where you are making assumptions are key here.

Identifying a question without an easy answer is more helpful than having the right answer.


Lesson: Design Research with Erika Hall

Step: #6 Questions: Do you know the questions you need to answer?

The first step of any research process is articulating the questions you want to answer, and sometimes that's the most important part. If you can talk about what you're trying to accomplish and just list out, well, here are the things we know we don't know. Here are the areas that we are making assumptions.

That's when I talk about research just being, at its core, a critical thinking process. Even that sometimes, especially if you're doing something very new, that might be all the research you need. Those questions have to be really good because research is trying to find the answers to those questions.

If you're asking the wrong questions or asking questions that are too general or too specific or not actually applicable to what you're doing, then you won't really gather appropriate knowledge.

Once you identify questions, the next step is to say, "Well, what's the best way to answer this?" If it's questions about your audience, the right thing to do might be to interview people who represent the entire audience, or to go out and observe.

Say you're designing a new system for restaurants, some sort of interactive menu, something like that, maybe you just go and observe how people behave in restaurants so that would inform that side of it.

Or you might say, "Well, we don't know, like, we know what we want to do and we know certain things about our audience, but we don't really know who the competition is." The competition might be anything people are doing to solve the same problem. It might not be obvious competitors.

You might talk to people and ask questions about well, we're trying to help you with your financial planning. What do you do now? What aren't you doing? What are your concerns? That would give you a better sense for what are all the things that your target user base or audience might be doing to solve the problem you want to solve for them.

Then you can say, "Well, how do we position ourselves, or how do we design our service or product so that it's better, cheaper, easier," whatever you're competitive attributes are, than the way people already think about doing it or are actually doing it.

When talking to representative users or representative target customers, it's really important to be very mindful of how you pose questions because that will have a big influence on the answers you get. You really want to understand.

If you ask people about their attitudes or their preferences, they may say things that may not represent their behavior and so that's one of the trickiest things about customer interviews is sometimes you have to ask things indirectly.

You should never ask people what they like because people can talk about things they like or don't like but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll choose certain products or services or behave in a certain way.

What you should ask people is, ask them what they actually do and why they do it. Those sorts of questions about real life context and behavior will point you in the direction to go if you want your customers to do something differently.

People are creatures of habit. A lot of what the human brain does, habits are shortcuts, especially these days, when there's so many choices and so much information, I think people really cling to their habits.

I think the biggest mistakes people make in creating products and services is thinking, oh, I can change somebody's habit. That is so hard you might as well consider that impossible. The better question to ask is, what habits do they have right now, why do they have them and how can I fit what I'm doing into that path that they're already taking?

It's the reason why a coffee shop that's on the way to the bus stop will do very well and the coffee shop right around the corner might be ten steps away but it will fail because it requires people to go off of their path instead of taking advantage of everyone lining up to catch the bus.

I like being right. I think everybody, really, that's a good feeling when you have the right answer. That can be one of those things as you advance in a profession and become more skilled or more mature you identify the things about yourself that are, there's low road and high road.

Low road is "Oh, I got the right answer". I think I try for myself, I've tried to move from the satisfaction of being right and rushing to be right and rushing to prove I'm right, to asking a really good question.

This is a way if you're looking for validation and conversation or professional validation switching that desire to have the right answer to the desire to ask a really penetrating or difficult question and that's what I look for now for myself.

If I'm in a conversation where we're defining requirements or talking about a project, that's the feedback I want is, oh, that's a really good question because that's a challenge to everybody else to say, have you thought about this, what's your answer to that?

Identifying a question that doesn't have an easy answer is much more helpful than throwing out an easy answer. Any answer that you would come up with that's right, right now, is going to be wrong tomorrow, because again, you're answering questions in a world, in a situation, in a competitive context that is changing constantly.

It's really important to get past that need to be right and move towards always, always be looking for what you don't know the answer to because when you think about your goal, your goal shouldn't be to have your ego soothed or petted because that doesn't create innovation. What creates innovation is always to be looking for that next challenge, to be identifying the questions that other people think they know the answers to but nobody has really answered yet. Answering those hard questions is what you really should be doing with your design or with your business. It's not going to be an "Oh, I just thought of this and I'm totally right" kind of answer.

When I think about how to characterize the right questions and the ones I recommend starting with are the ones you're most uncomfortable about asking. Because those are the things where you're most likely to relying on assumptions or relying on wishful thinking.

The right question, if it's something that you're a little bit uncomfortable about exploring, that's the place to say okay, here's a place where I really should be asking questions about this, I should be verifying this belief I have.

That can be really tricky, especially when you're dealing with a group of people perhaps in an organization that's based on a particular world view. It's very anti-authoritarian to ask these questions, to ask fundamental questions. That's an advantage we have as a consulting organization.

We come in from the outside and we can go straight to the CEO and say why are you doing business this way? Which is a great question to ask, why are we doing it this way? We won't get fired, that's part of our job.

A designer working inside an organization, I can't imagine an organization where a designer can just go up to the CEO and say "Why are we doing it this way?" I encourage everybody, I want business culture to change such that asking these questions and challenging the status quo is seen as a responsible thing to do to benefit your business.

If you're just working on the way that you wish your business was...a lot of people right now are working in businesses that are in transition. The media landscape is changing, the internet has changed everything about the way people conduct business or people conduct their lives in a lot of things, but not everything.

So now is a time where it's very important to go out and keep checking, keep doing that reality check.

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