How Design Thinking Can Help Solve Tough Consumer Research Challenges in Innovation

Sarah Faulkner
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Key Takeaways
Consumer research in Front-End of Innovation brings certain challenges, but through the application of key Design Thinking principles, researchers can approach the learning process differently to not only help overcome these difficulties, but actually build stronger, more compelling solutions for the consumers they serve.​

First, What is Design Thinking?  

Briefly summarized, it’s a form of solution-based thinking that starts with a specific goal and goes through multiple stages of iteration—divergence and convergence—to solve complex problems in a human-centered way.  Design thinking typically includes one or more of the following approaches: observation, interviews, brainstorming, and prototyping. 

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, gives this definition of design thinking’s role within business: “Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”. 


What Consumer Research Innovation Challenges Can Design Thinking Help Solve?  

When leveraging consumer research for designing innovative new products, services or experiences, here are a few common issues that researchers face:

  • People have a hard time talking about or answering questions about things that do not yet exist. Also, many people are not inherently “future thinkers”, that is, they have trouble imagining a world different from the one they live in today.

  • Asking people directly what they want generally only leads to incremental improvements, not breakthrough innovation. It’s practically impossible for people to tell you what they will need in the future. Consider Henry Ford’s famous quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.  

  • Too often, consumer research is treated as a “check step” in the process of innovation because teams feel like they have one shot to get it right and want to only show ideas once they’ve reached a high level of finish/finality.

 How Can I Apply Design Thinking to Innovation-Focused Consumer Research?

Here are some tips for applying Design Thinking to Consumer Insights work in identifying new innovation opportunities and developing and optimizing innovative products & services. 

Observation & Interviews 

These approaches help build gut-level consumer understanding to allow the team to design solutions that will delight consumers, without asking consumers to tell us the future.

  • Perform research in-context/Ethnography: Visit consumers’ homes, usual stores, restaurants, etc. to see them performing the task in question. Be on the lookout for compensating behaviors or cases in which what they say and what they do are inconsistent. If the idea in question doesn’t yet exist (e.g. a brand new technology), explore analogous situations or current substitutions with consumers. 

  • Build empathy for target users/consumers: Getting to know target consumers on a personal level and hearing their stories is a great way to build empathy. Try “walking in their shoes” in an anthropological sense. One example might be to wear thick gloves or tape several fingers to open bottles of medicine to empathize with arthritis sufferers. Or, one could try dramatically limiting discretionary spending for a few weeks to gain insight into the lives of low or fixed income consumers.

Brainstorming, Co-creation & Prototyping 

These approaches help avoid the trap of waiting for a final or “perfect” product before engaging consumers as well as helping consumers react to something that does not yet exist.

  • Co-creation: Consider involving select consumers in the creation process and use prototypes (drawings, skits, 3-D models, etc.) to not only bring ideas to life, but also give consumers something tangible to try, use and play with. Don’t wait until the product or service design is “final” to share with consumers for their feedback.  Allowing consumers to actually participate in making the product better while it’s still in rougher, or even conceptual, form may give teams completely new directions to pursue (while there’s still time to actually make the changes in the development cycle). 

  • Prototype to bring learning & insights to life: In addition to using prototypes in the product/service development process, think about how prototypes can help bring research learning to life across a variety of different objectives. For example, to deploy a new segmentation study, create scripts for each segment and engage team members to perform a skit to bring to them to life. Or, create a “studio” to immerse the team in the target consumers’ world and stock it with artifacts of his/her life.

 Problem Definition & Iteration 

These approaches can help to both design the most effective consumer research up front and give the flexibility to learn over time, without needing to have everything figured out before ever talking with a consumer.

  • Extreme clarity on objectives and action to be taken: Precise problem definition is always the starting point for applying design thinking and the same should be true for every research project. In order to create the most effective research design, spend time up front getting crystal clear with key stakeholders on exactly what they want to learn and what action they will take as a result of the findings. Through this process, sometimes teams will discover that new consumer research is actually not the right next step! 

  • Iterative research: Learning is generally an iterative process—meaning, answering one question means walking away with 3 more—and learning plans should be designed with this flexibility. As a previous colleague used to say, “The only thing we know for sure about our first assumptions is that they are wrong.” It takes many iterations to create true innovation. Operating with the mindset of getting something in front of a consumer as early as possible and then keep going back after each refinement will help ensure the innovation stays human-centered and can progress quickly.

Consumer research in Front-End of Innovation brings certain challenges, but through the application of key Design Thinking principles, researchers can approach the learning process differently to not only help overcome these difficulties, but actually build stronger, more compelling solutions for the consumers they serve.​

Author Bio:

Sarah Faulkner
Sarah Buckley Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting, has 14+ years of experience in consumer insights, innovation and brand strategy. She focuses on the front end of innovation and applies consumer and market insights to identify high potential opportunity spaces and drive new idea & business model development. Email:
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