Designer and researcher: the new creative partnership

By Rob Varney

In the 20th Century creating a close partnership between copywriter and art director led to a creative renaissance in advertising. In the 21st century the relationship between designer and researcher will do the same.

In the late ‘60s Bill Bernbach developed a creative philosophy that gave us the writer/art director pairing that is still the norm today. Copywriters and Art Directors bring different skills and perspectives into the creative process. Bernbach saw that instead of looking at each role as part-work (‘We have some words, now I can create a layout’) an interplay between the two created bolder, smarter, more valuable advertising ideas. Two people working closely together would push further into creative thinking than individuals working apart.

The great days of advertising are behind us. In this century attention is moving towards design as a key source of competitive advantage. In particular, the design of customer experiences which create value for users and affinity with brands. It’s probably not too glib to say that in the last century brands were what admen said they were, in this century brands are what customers say they are. And those perceptions are driven by the interactions customers have with brands throughout the lifecycle of their relationship.

In the emerging field of experience design, conventional working practices don’t normally put designers and researchers in the same kind of working proximity that we see between art director and copywriter. They should. A close bond between designer and researcher has a dramatic, positive effect on creative outcomes.

Growing up apart: the silo argument

Instead of encouraging close collaboration, very often researchers and designers are kept at arms-length during design projects. Research happens at specified and distinct moments within the design process, and in between the designer is expected to design. This model often casts the designer as schoolkid, working on her assignment before bringing it to be marked by a grown-up.

There’s a plausible-sounding rationale for this. Most researchers are trained to believe that objectivity is the central quality of their trade. The virtue held above all other virtues.

If you ask a research professional a question framed along the lines of “Sketch on that whiteboard exactly how you think we should respond to this insight you’ve given us” many will be surprised, some will actually be offended: you’re asking them to leave the objective world and move into the world of subjectivity and conjecture.

From the other side, traditional thinking also says that research inhibits design decisions and stifles the creative process. Designers are often nervous about getting too close to a researcher because a literal, slavish response to research will lead to boring, unimaginative work.

In the existing model everyone seems to have a rational arguments for keeping things like they are. But there is one group that is missing out as a result: customers.

Together is better

So why tear down this wall between researcher and creative which has existed for so long?

Well first we should just admit that all research is subjective. No study can represent complete objective truth about a topic. How research is devised, and how it is analysed and interpreted, always creates skews and biases. The research industry should stop being so po-face about this. Research is informed opinion.

Boardroom Outputs 2

Second, we should admit that designers who can’t do great work within constraints suggested by research aren’t very good designers. Ignoring information about the needs and preferences of users isn’t creative, it’s irresponsible.

So if keeping designers and researchers at arm’s length can lead to bad design outcomes, why does putting them closer together bring benefits?

At Foolproof we’ve seen that better interplay between the person bringing insight into the design space and the person interpreting that into design artefacts produces better work. When designer and researcher learn to trust each other’s ideas and opinions they enter a more fertile creative space – as a team. Research findings stop acting as a brake on the process and become the accelerator. With more time and space to explore the implications of insight, new possibilities and opportunities present themselves.

There are some basic conditions you need to create:

  • Researcher and designer need to be paired for the lifetime of the project – from formative research and concepts through to user testing and design detail.
  • Both need to actively participate in each other’s work: designers observe and help interpret research; researchers help sketch and develop design ideas.
  • They should be together in the same workspace as much as possible, and on-call to each other at short notice to discuss ideas and problems as they emerge.

The team in action: Domino’s Pizza

All this high theory probably needs an example to illustrate. We recently worked with Domino’s Pizza to replace their ecommerce site for home delivery. The project had an Insight Lead and Design Lead working in the way I’ve described above for the lifetime of the project. This close working relationship had benefits in the early formative stages of the project and also later on as we noodled the tiniest details of the user experience.

Dominos 3The new site would be used by both the UK and German franchises. At the outset we knew that we had to balance different attitudes and expectations about home-delivered pizza in the two countries. At face value the UK market was more focused on convenience and price promotions, in Germany there was more emphasis on provenance and craftsmanship in food preparation. These two differing expectations framed the early design challenge: how do you create a single platform which can serve two markets with quite different priorities?

Our researcher/designer team planned research which would give us access to this issue. The designer helped with fieldwork and worked with the researcher during analysis. Even while research analysis was happening the team were able to start sketching concepts which addressed the needs of the two markets. The informing insight was that, in fact, German consumers were interested in price promotions and deals but only when framed in a particular way. Similarly, provenance and quality were important to UK customers. Pairing the designer and researcher during fieldwork meant that the creative process could start immediately. This gave both team members more time inside the problem-space than in the traditional model where researcher delivers a package of information for the designer to unpack and start work on concepts.

Later in the project the main journeys and interaction elements were fixed. This meant that attention could be turned to sweating the intricate detail of the user experience. One tiny problem was particularly wicked: how should the interaction for adding a double topping work? And what visual feedback should we give to the user? Using findings from earlier rounds of user research the designer and researcher worked on this together, creating a candidate solution which was then validated through testing. Our researcher was on hand to represent the eyes of the user on this problem, meaning the team could move more quickly in finding a design solution that worked.

Domino's on desktop
Domino's mobile screen

These two stories from either end of a design project are just a couple of examples of how team-work between designer and research allows problems to be opened up and closed down more efficiently. But there are softer benefits too: it’s more fun to work in a partnership than on your own; trust in each other allows for more creative playfulness at times, and at other times it allows feedback and critique to be frank and direct (without waiting for a whole cycle of a project to turn before it’s heard); working in partnership also deepens professional respect between design and research specialists, softening the hard lines between different disciplines.

In particular this approach liberates research and research people from a project role which is about validation, limitation and constraint. By inviting research practitioners into the creative process we unlock the power of insight to generate new ideas and new experiences. In the case of Domino’s it got us to the right answer faster. By testing early concepts to probe the hypothesis with customers, we could put this to bed earlier. We could then turn our focus to designing a more streamlined solution from a tech perspective, and also a more rewarding experience for their pizza-loving public across Europe.

A future that’s more fun

In the advertising world copywriters are allowed to have ideas and opinions about visual design, and art directors feel comfortable scribbling headlines. In the future researchers will be expected to sketch interaction ideas, and designers will feel able to offer their own interpretations of research. The deliberate pairing of researchers and designers will lead to a deeper understanding of design problems and in turn to stronger, bolder creative solutions.

Like advertising in the 60s, Experience Design can have its own renaissance moment by putting researchers and designers to work together as a team.

 

Rob Varney

My goal is to help design the best design agency in the world. I'm the Experience Design Director at Foolproof, and responsible for the quality of ideas and insight we generate for our clients. It's been my pleasure to find, build and motivate a team of talented designers, developers and research consultants over the last four years.

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