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Can Market Research Save Design Thinking?

Learn about the recent issues plaguing design thinking and how market research can help.

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By Katy Mogal*

In 2010, when Vital Findings launched, design thinking was in its heyday. Vital Findings’ founder Jason Kramer was inspired by design agencies like IDEO, Frog design and gravitytank, and he saw an opportunity to bring some design thinking approaches to market research. ”A lot of the research at the time was purely evaluative,” says Jason.  “Design thinking promised to help innovate products and services for the future, and that was incredibly energizing.  I felt like there was suddenly a new set of tools, and we needed to take advantage of them.”

Many companies and executives jumped on the design thinking bandwagon, attracted by its promise of a scaleable, repeatable process that would drive innovation. “It spread like wildfire in corporate America because it’s easy,” Gadi Amit, founder of the San Francisco firm NewDealDesign told Fast Company.

In recent years, design thinking has lost much of its luster. “Design giant IDEO lays off a third of staff and closes offices as the era of design thinking ends,” a 2023 headline in Fast Company blared.  Articles in high-profile publications like MIT Technology in Review posited a variety of reasons for this decline, including a lack of subject matter expertise that led consultancies like IDEO to propose irrelevant or impractical solutions, a fuzziness around what design thinking actually is, and the lack of planning for integration on the part of companies who experimented with design thinking but failed to connect it to the parts of the business that needed to implement new ideas that sprung from the process.

Vital Findings still sees real promise in design thinking, and the company believes a more balanced, hybrid approach that integrates the empathy and creativity of design with the data-driven insights of market research can yield powerful results. This potential is to leverage the tools of market research to inject a measure of strategy and business savvy into design thinking to address some of the criticisms that have called the approach into question. 

For example, for a recent project for a MedTech company who wanted to develop adjacent features and services for its technology, Vital Findings interviewed lead users and category experts to understand user/prospect needs, led a 2-day workshop to ideate solutions, refined them in an online community, and then quantified their appeal with consumers.  Central to this approach was the fact that they focused the research on segments they already knew to be valuable, addressable, and sizable.  The quantitative research had some surprises, with some features the team really liked falling to the bottom, but some ideas they thought were more niche rising to the top.  They confirmed that all of the features/services were feasible before conducting the quantitative research, and several are already on the product roadmap.

Above: a Vital Findings ideation workshop

While design thinking has faced some challenges and criticisms in recent years, the core principles and tools of the approach still have immense value to offer.  By integrating the agility, empathy and creativity of design thinking with the data-driven, representative insights of market research, Vital Findings believes companies can develop truly user-centric innovations that have a higher likelihood of success in the real world. The “reset” that is needed is not to abandon design thinking altogether, but to evolve it into a more balanced, hybrid approach that harnesses the strengths of multiple disciplines. As this post by the Collective noted last year, it’s not that design thinking is dead, it’s just that it needs to change to meet the demands of the market – a market that today requires more quantified evidence and more risk mitigation.

Katy Mogal is a former Google, Meta and Fitbit UX leader with expertise in market research, UX research and consumer insights. She has an MBA from Wharton and an innovation degree from California College of the Arts.  She lives in Rome, where she is a member of the advisory board of the Product, Service and System Design Master’s program at Politecnico di Milano, and an advisor to startups focused on social impact and sustainability.

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