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The Best Design Process Starts With Research

The right kind of investigation can help avoid disastrous results and advance novel ideas, technological advancements, and unique positioning that can increase revenue and profitability.

By Marc Bertaud

Published December 7, 2010
Related Searches: Design
The first step in getting any job done right, especially product development, is thoughtful, aggressive research design. But research, by nature, is a scary word for many managers. The common perception is that delving into an investigation phase requires a lot of spending at a slow pace.

But research is a time when moving a bit slower early on can eventually help you go much faster. It’s essential, however, that the right kind of investigation be dedicated to understanding your market, who wants what, and how you need to set yourself apart from the competition. This research can help avoid disastrous results and advance novel ideas, technological advancements, and unique positioning that can increase revenue and profitability.

Think back to your company’s last product development effort.  Design, engineering, tooling, marketing … the process takes time. And as time passes, the expenses go up, and any necessary corrections become exponentially more costly. 

Now think about how that product development effort performed. 
  • Did it succeed?
  • Was it well received?
  • Did it build brand loyalty?
  • Is it still positively impacting business?
  • Are you building on the success with a strategically positioned, next-generation release?

The answers to these questions all depend on a single factor: How did you do your upfront research?

Targeted research clarifies the tradeoffs and strategic considerations, which can help eliminate the misapplication of the personal views and experience of the development team and product managers.  By reconnecting with users and taking nothing for granted, the entire team gains understanding into what they should be creating, who they are creating it for, and where and how the finished product will be used.

Proper research is similar to a sprinter who takes small steps at the start, then takes progressively bigger strides before going full speed.  While the investigative sequence can feel time-consuming at first, the momentum eventually builds and it will pay dividends in the end.

There are a few key rules to successful design research that apply to both medical products specifically and product development in general. They may seem simple, but often can be overlooked. These principles create a solid foundation on the front-end of the development cycle and feed the entire process of innovation.

Listen First
A mentor once told me, “You have two ears and one mouth. Act that way.” This is a must in product development. Listen and then listen some more. Let the people you’re working with take their thought to conclusion before you ask a clarifying or follow-up question. Don’t assume you know where they’re going. Pause, and be quiet. You’ll be surprised at what people start talking about and where it leads your research.

Dig In
Often, a researcher will jump to a quick conclusion and believe it needs only a few tweaks before the next design step. Most of the time, however, this is not the case. The final solution is usually a long ways off. Proper research usually takes multiple rounds of problem-solving, conceptual combinations and detailed refinement before any item of value appears. For this reason, it’s important to keep asking questions throughout the process.

Breakthrough Innovations are not an easy to come up with. Neither is understanding what affect they will have on the market environment. That’s why it is increasingly important for researchers to learn everything about their subject; beliefs, motivations, concerns and more. A skilled design researcher can use interviewing techniques and exercises to draw this information out and achieve a true understanding of what guides their subjects’ decision making. Final solutions can then be built upon psychographics in addition to demographics and functionality, leading to a richer, more appropriate solution that breeds loyalty to your brand.

In the case of our medical product development, these concepts were on display during our recent work with an device company on a fluid management system. Our team was introduced to the medical staff hierarchy that exists within the healthcare field and how the different professions interact with the same device based on their roles. For example, the surgeon was concerned with the amount and characteristics of the fluid being extracted, making sightlines imperative, while the head nurse was responsible for setting the preferences of the surgeon, calling for intuitive control design. Lower-ranking nurses often moved the device around, meaning easy transport around the operating room, over cords and hoses, and through doorways, were necessary. Finally, other staff members were responsible for emptying the system, making biohazard exposure and medical waste management key considerations. In this situation, without being onsite and stationed in the setting with professionals who are skilled observers, many of the opportunities for innovation that are built into the system surely would have been missed.

Prototypes Build Understanding
Many development teams wait far too long before building rough prototypes of a design. Don’t fall into this trap. Be sure to draw out an early idea, mock it up in a behavioral or physical prototype, and get it in front of your prospective users and team members as early as you can. This way, you can get immediate feedback from everyone involved.  Is the prototype working the way they hoped? Are there any new ideas or interpretations that weren’t previously considered?

While conducting research for the a new geneartion of braille writer, one of our most important design features was created with masking tape and Popsicle sticks. Building on the ethnographic research, mechanical analysis, and concept generation that had already been done, an early prototype of the new device was created for testing during user interviews to ensure that their needs were being met and new features were intuitive. During one of these interviews, a user noted that the newly designed paper knob wasn’t as functional as it could be. Our team modified the prototype then and there with the tools they had available, making the single-wing, lever-action control they had originally envisioned into a double-wing knob that was more easily turned. That modified prototype was used by other users, who verified that the double-wing knob was an improvement, and this feature was implemented into the final design.

Be Open to Collaboration
Developers often strive to personally generate the innovation solution to their clients' problems. But having only one person’s insight rarely will lead to product success. It’s essential in medical product development to listen and accept constructive critique from others. Hearing from a broad range of stakeholders in the early phases of development will open up communication and bring different perspectives and skills to the process. As the developer, you should clients to consider opportunities they may not have identified or given full consideration to on their own. Engaging the client throughout the development process also creates a sense of ownership for all involved. 

While recently developing solutions for Alzheimers patients and their caregivers, we spoke with a diverse team of designers, engineers, strategists and marketers to brainstorm, ideate and problem solve. Each came with their own unique and thought-provoking preconceptions based on their individual perspectives and experiences. By sharing this rich range of knowledge, while also constructively critiquing solutions, everything from form factor, functionality and technology were challenged and ultimately pushed incredibly innovative and strategic solutions.

Marc Bertaud is the global lead for Strategy and Definition Services at Product Development Technologies, a full-service product development firm in Lake Zurich, Ill.

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