Find the right people to inspire your new product design

December 01, 2015

Design Thinking is deeply rooted in building understanding and empathy as a foundation for the design process.

Because of this, setting screening or recruitment criteria for participants in research studies is one of the most important decisions in planning design research. These users will be the basis for most of the data collected so it’s important to begin with a solid foundation. In some ways, you’re basing this decision off of a working hypothesis – and you hope to prove the hypothesis true. (Note, however, that it’s not a “bad” thing to discover you were off in your estimation of the “right” user group. This reframe can be a huge learning!)

Every project is different, but here are a few general rules of thumb that can help ensure you find the right people to inspire your insights and design:

A marketing target is not the same as a good design research participant

In design research, our objectives are different than marketing research. We’re seeking to understand needs and develop empathy so that we can design an experience (a product and/or a service) that creates value for the user. Marketing isn’t in opposition to this idea, but it’s more focused on finding the greatest value for the firm and seeks to find that value via marketing research.

As design researchers, we are careful to look beyond a specific marketing target or segment. We purposefully cast a wider net to ensure we’re capturing a range of user behaviors and needs. As an example, screening to find only millennial moms who are on Facebook and are “heavy users” of a particular product excludes others who could be incredibly valuable in developing understanding for how a product or service could be designed.

Design researchers purposefully cast a wider net to ensure we’re capturing a range of user behaviors and needs.

The less you know about your user, the more important it is to keep an open mind and broader criteria

I love the phrase, “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Sometimes this statement can feel like an excuse, but in the context of design research it’s a good reminder to stay open-minded. Casting an even wider net to find users can feel like a shot in the dark, but there are good reasons to keep the definition broad to minimize the risk of not finding what you didn’t know you were looking for. Sometimes this also means talking to more people in total, but it doesn’t have to if you can be selective in finding a range of people (not always easy). If the research plan is flexible and allows for iteration, you create the opportunity to learn who the “right” user is early on and then refine that definition in a subsequent phase of the project.

Go to the extreme to learn more

For some studies, it can be valuable to talk to “extreme” users. This could apply to both ends of the “extremes.” On the “high” end, this could be subject-matter experts, early adopters or ahead-of-the-curve “lead” users (see the work of Eric von Hippel for much more on lead users). A benefit of talking to these extreme users is that they are often more likely to be able to articulate their needs (and their needs are probably the needs of everyone else – even if they don’t know it yet!). These users often create highly innovative solutions that could be inspirational for your own design project. For the same reasons, extreme users can also be a great group for early prototype testing or even product launches (as Eric Reis advocates for in “The Lean Startup”).

On the “low” end of the spectrum could be non-users or rejecters. Talking to non-users who could – maybe – be converted to users, can also be very valuable. Finding out why they don’t engage in a particular behavior (use a product, service) can shed light on a previously overlooked or misinterpreted need or behavior.

Again, every design challenge and project is different in countless ways. There is no one way to screen or look for participants and users, but having some guiding principles in mind ensures a good starting point to build empathy and set you on the right path to solving wicked problems.